Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Signs and Wonders

My sister sent a note to me saying it had been a "great summer!" meaning we'd had good beach weather. It's true, we had more sunny, hot days this summer than any I can remember. All that heat and sun meant we had a drought. A big patch of our lawn browned up. You can see it in the crowns of some trees that started showing fall color in mid-August.

We started the year with an amazing spring. We had just the mix of sun and rain to produce a huge bonanza of nectar! Everyone was optimistic, including the bees, who took it as a signal to swarm! Swarms, really, are a sign of optimism. Bees think to themselves, "Hey, conditions are pretty good, the days are still getting longer, I bet we can split and form a new hive! Whaddaya say!" More or less, a swarm is like a business opening another office someplace.

The great spring gave way to a hot dry summer. Not much bloomed, and what did didn't have much nectar it in. In drought conditions plants don't put out much abundance and try and hang on until conditions improve.

Our bees, which took off like a rocket in May, were in stasis by the end of June. You can tell this because the bees which had been furiously drawing comb in early Just just stopped when nectar stopped coming in. You can see this because the partly drawn comb is no longer white, but yellow. It sounds funny, but it's because the bees walked on it with dirty feet!

Around August 1st I saw bees on Queen Anne's Lace. A sure sign that everything had gone from bad to worse. Queen Anne's Lace is a plant of last resort that bees turn to when there is nothing else. It's the bee equivalent of taking a job at MacDonald's.

Last week two wonderful things happened:
  1. It rained more than an inch for the first time since June. I put a glass on our deck looked outside and watched it fill over the course of the day. We slept on our enclosed porch for two nights to listen to the rain fall on the roof. I walked across the back yard to the compost bins in my socks and didn't mind at all when they get soaking wet.
  2. The tall goldenrod came into bloom. The early goldenrod had been out, but is apparently of little use to the bees. The world is gold again. Like the dandelions that have come to symbolize the abundance of spring, their fall sisters arrive to rescue our girls from the nectar dearth that is midsummer in Western Massachusetts.
I think, in the end, that 2010 for beekeepers nearby will be remembered as a dry year. Maybe, if the frost comes late and we get a bit more rain we'll come to remember how the strong fall honeyflow was this year.

Though summer isn't over, I can now look back over enough of it to see the greater pattern of much of it. I can see how our actions managing the bees fit in with the bees themselves and the environment we operated in. I wonder what I could have done differently, and wonder what to do now.

Sometimes we see into the past no better than we can predict the future. Yet, this year, I am beginning to see how our bees, my actions, and the progression of the year interacted. Beekeeping means reading signs, either from the bees or from the environment. It means interpreting these correctly and acting appropriately. I don't think any of this is possible without wonder.

There is a sweet-sourdough smell that comes from a strong hive processing lots of goldenrod nectar. In late afternoon when the field bees have returned it's quite pronounced in front of several hives hard at their work. Somehow, here, I feel a fellow traveler with our bees and the land.

I am sure of this at least: I will not lack for wonder.

Friday, July 30, 2010

What's blooming locally, and local queens.

I have started to look at the Bloom Board over at the New England Wild Flower Society to get an idea of what's happening out in the world away from the hive. It's turned into a great resource for finding out where our bees are going. It's been dawning on me that my hive management is such a small, small part of what happens to our bees. The rest is what's going on away from the hive, in the natural world.

Here's a list for what's blooming at Garden in the Woods, which is meant to showcase southern New England wildflowers. Since they're only about 60 miles from our apiary, it's also a pretty good bet that this is what's blooming here. So, when I am trying to understand what's available to our bees I start here--it helps me with identifying plants. I've highlighted plants that are at least are decent honey plants.

Of these, the most exciting is goldenrod. Early goldenrod isn't a super plant, but it's the first of the goldenrod that will make the bulk of our honey this year. Tall goldenrod comes later, and when it arrives the real show starts!

Actea pachypoda (white baneberry)

Actea racemosa (black bugbane)

Allium cernuum (nodding onion)

Allium plummerae (Tanner’s canyon onion)

Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed)

Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed)

Baptisia tinctoria (yellow wild indigo)

Blephilia hirsuta (hairy wood mint)

Callirhoe digitata (winecup)

Callirhoe involucrata (purple poppy mallow)

Cephalanthus occidentalis (common buttonbush)

Clethra alnifolia (coastal sweet pepperbush)

Coreopsis verticillata (threadleaf tickseed)

Diphylleia cymosa (American umbrella leaf berries)

Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower)

Eschscholzia california cv. Aurantiaca orange (California poppy)

Eupatoriadelphus fistulosus (hollow-stemmed Joe-pye weed)

Eupatoriadelphus purpureum (Joe-pye weed)

Euphorbia corollata (flowering spurge)

Euribia divaricata (white wood aster)

Filipendula rubra (queen of the prairie)Heliopsis helianthoides

Gaillardia aristata (common blanket flower)

Helenium autumnale (common sneezeweed)

Helianthus microcephalis (small-headed sunflower)

Helianthus tuberosa (Jerusalem artichoke sunflower)

Heliopsis helianthoides (oxeye daisy)

Heuchera micantha (small-flowered alumroot)

Hydrangea quercifolia (oak-leaved hydrangea)

Hydrastis canadensis (goldenseal – fruit)

Hypericum prolificum (shrubby St. John’s-wort)

Impatiens pallida (pale touch-me-not)

Liatris pycnostachya (prairie blazing star)

Lobelia cardinalis (red lobelia)Monarda didyma

Lobelia siphilitica (great blue lobelia)

Lysimachia quadrifolia (whorled yellow loosestrife)

Lysimachia terrestris (swamp yellow loosestrife)

Mimulus moschatus (musky monkey-flower)

Mimulus ringens (Allegheny monkey-flower)

Monarda didyma (scarlet bee balm)

Monarda fistulosa (wild bee balm)

Nymphaea odorata (white water lily)

Petalostemum purpureum (purple prairie clover)

Phlox divaricata cv. alba (white wood phlox)

Phlox paniculata cv. Blue Boy (summer phlox)

Physostegia (obedient plant)

Pontederia cordata (pickerel weed)

Pycnanthemum icanum (hoary mountain mint)

Ratibida pinnata (gray-headed Mexican hat)

Rhododendrom prunifolium (plum-leaf azalea)

Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed coneflower)

Ruellia humilis (wild petunia)Sarracenia purpurea

Sarracenia flava (yellow pitcher plant foliage)

Sarracenia oreophila (mountain pitcher plant foliage)

Sarracenia purpurea (purple pitcher plant)

Saururus cernuus (lizard’s tail)

Silphium perfoliatum (rosinweed or cup plant)

Solidago juncea (early goldenrod)

Spigelia marilandica (Indian pink)

Symphyotrichum linariifolius (stiff aster)

As an aside here, my dad was president of the American Wild Flower thing-or-some-such when I was in my teens. I love my dad a lot, so learning about this now is something that I feel especially good about.

In other news, we're making up some new "nucs" (short for Nucleus Colonies) with special queens. Roger from the Franklin County Bee Keepers has offered us a queenly daughter (princess?) queen that is supposed to be especially resistant to mites. We've also started a couple of queens from Lagrant's. He's a second generation local bee keeper who breeds queens right here in western MA. Most of our queens come from Dan Conlon of Warm Colors Apiary. We like Dan's queens because they come from just up the road from us, about 8 miles from here.

Local means a lot in bee keeping. As an example, bees that hoard honey and respond strongly to changes in day length do better in someplace like New England, since we have long, cold winters compared to someplace like Georgia. We're starting to breed our own queens now, but queens from people like Dan keep local beekeepers like us going.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Through the Eyes of a Servant

In my teens and twenties I played at being a trout fisherman. Spare time took me into the woods to stumble along the banks of streams and narrow rivers. Along the way I began to notice vegetation and soil types, the makeup of the trees and the feel of the ground under foot. I looked at the plunge of water and where light came over hills and into valleys. I learned about nature, but for the purpose of catching fish.

In my twenties and thirties I worked for a farm in Connecticut. I once worked a 106 hour work week and did many 18-hour days. We planted corn, squash and other market garden crops on 1600 acres scattered from south of Hartford to north of Springfield. I learned to identify weeds; I became familiar with sumac. I learned how water flows across and through the soil by watching newly plowed land dry after rains, and much later seeing how crops grew. I learned about nature, but for the purpose of growing crops.

In my thirties I moved to California and took up surfing. I spent hundreds or thousands of hours watching waves break on the shore. I learned about what makes a wave strong, how the land and wind affect its shape. I became familiar with the things that live there, in the dangerous boundary between earth and sea. I learned about nature, but for the purpose of surfing.

This morning I went up to Andy's to see the bees. When I was there I wondered where they were going. I allowed myself the time to wander from the hive to see where the girls were working. I found some on Queen Ann's Lace, early goldenrod and a kind of thistle I later identified as Canada thistle.

In my wanderings this morning I felt again that searching that I have so many times been party to. I tend to learn from and wander through the natural world when I have given myself some sort of mission. It could be fishing, farming or surfing. I rarely go abroad with binoculars or a guide book to observe for the sake of observation. I don't know if this is good or bad, I just know this is how I am.

When, at liberty this morning, I did wander the fields in search of my girls the great panopoly of things that may be observed by me, were observed by me. There, amidst the grass and thistle, I became again a servant of mission. It is a wonder to think of them aloft above the heads of rich and poor alike, alighting on hundreds of thousands or millions of flowers each day, a thousand times too many for me to even imagine, even had I had the whole day and all the tea in China.

It occurred to me then that for the first time, I was not looking for something for myself, I was looking for where my bees were making their fortune, and that all the work done back at the hive merely prepares them for the changes in the land.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Summer has been going great at the apiary. With one exception, every hive we have is a winner! Al Carle, the state bee inspector came by and said our hives looked exceptional. We'll be taking in honey this year for sure.

It's been a banner year, I think anyhow, with great weather and lots of nectar out there. Priscilla and I have worked hard, but it's nothing compared to our "girls."

Because I was curious, I wanted to know how many bee flights there were, on average per hive, per minute. So, I took a stop watch and counted fifty flights, that took around 15 seconds each time. It was hard to count as fast as I saw bees taking off. So, we have about 200 flights per minute per hive. Also, I did this little experiment early in the morning, hardly peak flying time! So, in reality these numbers are low. Still, they are stunning.

I counted the number of honey bee flights per minute and averaged them to come up with this"

200 Flights per minute per hive
1,200 Flights per hour per hive
14,400 Flight per day per hive
100,800 Flights per week per hive
432,000 Flights per month per hive
2,160,000 Flights per year per hive

The following is the number of flights for all our beehives together. We have 20 hives:

4,000 Minute
24,000 Hour
288,000 Day
2,016,000 Week
8,640,000 Month
43,200,000 Year

So, since a bee visits on average 100 flowers per flight, that means
our bees will visit

400,000 Flowers per minute
2,400,000 Flowers per day
28,800,000 Flowers per week
201,600,000 Flowers per month
864,000,000 Flowers per year.

Flower power indeed. I tried to be conservative with my estimates, so it's possible our bees could visit a billion flowers this year. Out bees visited 400,000 in the time it took you to read this. That's nearly half a million flowers.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Book Review: Beekeeping by Werner Melzer

Beekeeping is one of those little books by a company called Barrons that you have undoubtedly seen someplace or other. I have another Barrons book called Plants for Your Aquarium. They produce a lot of titles about pets, and books for the school age educational market.

Oddly, like my aquarium plant book, the Barrons Beekeeping book turns out to be surprisingly good. The paperback volume would just about cover a tea saucer but isn't much more than a centimeter thick. It covers all the basics in adequate detail and even has a pretty good section on honeybee physiology. The book has a sizable number of color pictures, but it's really the illustrations that I like. There are several pen and ink illustrations; one is the Beekeeper's Year that shows the changing conditions and activities within the hive and of the bees. This is shown with the beekeeper's tasks, month by month. Behind it all are two curved lines showing the height of sun in the sky at noon and the amount of brood that should be present in a hive. It's a wonderful illustration well worthy of inclusion of Edward Tufte's Visual Display of Information.

Similarly, there is a nice page showing the life cycle of the bee that allows the novice keeper to easily determine the age of brood. If I could buy these in poster size, I would.

Melzer also devotes a fair amount of time to swarm control, and he advocates a method he calls artificial swarming. It uses the old queen and a method that selects for the same type of bees that would leave in a normal swarm. This is said to satisfy the swarm instinct. I really think that this is the only method of swarm control, as opposed to swarm prevention, that could work.

This book is another from England, and devotes some pages at the start to the bizarre English leaf hive that somehow exists like a bunch of filing cabinets in their own house. Mr. Melzer rightly keeps on track with normal Langstroth hives.

Since this book only costs $9, you should absolutely buy it, if not for the illustrations then for the clear, concise swarm prevention techniques. It's quick and accurate and just right for short reads any time. It's not Bees and Honey, or even Roger Morse, but it's a wonderful short volume.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Book Review: The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum

The Backyard Beekeeper is touted as "The Absolute Beginners Guide to Beekeeping" and it's probably about right for that. I would recommend this book to a true beginner.

The first thing that one notices about this book is that it's a fairly large size paperback. Not only does it have far more images than other books on beekeeping with which I am familiar, nearly every illustration is color. Backyard Beekeeping seems far more modern than the other books I own because it is. Published in 2005, this book is part of a wave of publishing for the post-Animal, Vegetable, Miracle crowd. Hives, for the most part, are shown in situ in yards that the Volvo may have just returned to when bringing the kids home from soccer practice or mom back from pilates. Beekeeping in Backyard Beekeeping is hobby beekeeping and hives are kept for pleasure as much as honey. As such, there are recipes and a full-page picture of dried lavender for you to infuse into the cosmetics you'll make from hive products.

In all it does a great job as an introductory text, with clear writing, tons of huge bright color pictures and a focus that more closely matches the goals of most hobbyists.

Mr. Flottum is unusual in that he advocates the use, exclusively, of medium supers for both brood chambers and honey supers. There are many reasons for this. I came to the same conclusion myself last year, before ever having seen this book.

Medium supers are lighter. A full deep can weigh 100 lbs. Too much for me to lift all day. Too much for Priscilla to lift even a few times. He also rightly, IMHO, opines that with one size super you can swap honey comb into the brood chamber if you need to prevent swarming by adding laying area, or swap empty comb into a super if a flow is on. When I switched to only mediums I had this in mind. I've also found during hive body reversals I can better control the brood nest with three mediums rather than two deeps.

The downside is that more supers cost more and they're more labor intensive to construct and paint. Kim goes a step further and suggests using 8 frame equipment rather than standard 10 frame. All this would make a hive of the same volume cost more than twice as much as a standard 10 frame hive with two deep hive bodies and three medium supers.

I found his writing sound and his advice great for the average hobbyist bee keeper for their first year or maybe two.

Where this book falls very short is the short shrift given to swarm prevention. In the long run beekeeping is about mastering the basics--controlling mites and preventing swarms. He devotes more room to both foot cream and salad dressing than he does to swarm prevention. If you're going to succeed in bee keeping you must manage swarms. It's complicated and just plain hard but it has to be done. I'd at least like to have seen 3 pages on this important topic. Optimistically, he devotes less than a page to swarm prevention and even that is part of spring inspections, without it's own heading. Then he gives two pages to catching swarms, which is way more fun to think about.

Backyard Beekeeping is a wonderful addition to the canon and makes beekeeping a lot more accessible. Beautiful in its layout and photography, well written and clear in its articulation, and smart in its advocacy of medium supers for all chores in the hive it's a solid piece of work. If someone you know has signed up for next year's bee keeping classes, buy them this book for Christmas. Then next year, get them Roger Morse.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book Review: Ted Hooper Bees and Honey.

Ted Hooper's Bees and Honey is a logical successor to Roger Morse. My edtion was published in 1979 by Rodale Press. They're the people that bring you Organic Gardening and a whole host of other natural lifestyle publications. This book is considerably more complete than Morse's work.

As an example of this, there is a 3-page section called "Finding the Queen." I think this is the only book I have ever seen that has a section by that name. Many operations in bee keeping begin with the sentence, "Find the queen, then do manipulation xyz."

Now, this is much easier said than done. Imagine 50,000 bees in a hive, or even 20,000, and now think that maybe 4-500 bees are in the air and you've got a hive 50% taken apart. Finding the queen is a whole operation in itself. Priscilla and I see a queen in about 5% of our hive inspections, though we're mostly looking for evidence of a queen and not the queen herself. I like that Ted Hooper saw fit to address this oversight of so many bee keeping volumes.

As such, Hooper's Bees and Honey is a good middle-ground book for the beekeeper who's not a beginner, but also not a seasoned pro. This is pretty much where Priscilla and I are.

Bees and Honey is a pretty complete volume. It has many clear illustrations, a lot of information, and a good complete index. It's a very good "serious" book for the beekeeper who is becoming advanced.

I'd fault it only in that it was written in England and published there first. This is only a problem in that descriptions of manipulations of hives are complicated, because there are several types of hives in use in England. Bees and Honey focuses more on the standard hive we use here in the United States than other English volumes do, but it's still annoying to me to have to wade through the nonsense about the British National Hive and other overly complex gear that seemed commonplace there.

In all, Hooper is complete enough that he rivals many other stand-alone volumes combined into one place. His section on queen rearing is mostly as complete as Roger Morse's book on queen rearing; his section on swarm prevention as long as Snelgrove's book on the topic, and considerably more modern.

Still, I tend to reach for Roger Morse or Richard Bonny since both authors kept bees in New England, and not Jolly Old England. Looking this book over again has made me think I should consult Hooper more.

Review of Beekeeping Books: The New Complete Guide to Beekeeping

The New Complete Guide to Beekeeping by Roger A. Morse.

I still maintain that all the Roger Morse Guide to Beekeeping books are the best basic introductions to bee keeping that there are. People often ask me about top bar hives and foundationless comb. What I always say is, get "Roger Morse" right first. By this I mean understand the accepted way that most people have been successfully keeping bees in America since about the 1950s.

Roger Morse writes plainly and logically in a way that makes the reader understand the basic tasks and work by season. He also covers, in reasonable detail, swarm prevention, queen rearing and comb honey production. While the latter subjects aren't really required for the first or even second year bee keeper they are covered in enough detail to illuminate the many areas of even basic beekeeping that they touch upon. As an example, while the novice may not raise queens, reading about queen production will help her to understand the biology and life cycle of the queen.

Roger Morse's complete guides fall down in that they cover a little bit of everything, but don't go into a lot of detail about anything. Still, once you understand everything that Roger says because you have seen it in your hives you can call yourself a bee keeper.

There hasn't been a new edition of any of these books since about the early 1990s. So, the information is old but all the basic techniques still apply. Understand everything in a Complete Guide first, then make up your own mind. You probably know by now these are my most referred to and favorite books for basic information.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Normally, I object to any kind of XYZ-a-Rama kind of thing, but six swarms from four hives in less than a week is truly breathtaking.

The warm weather and overzealous beekeeping in early April made for very healthy hives. In fact, conditions in the hive looked more like early June than late April. I was very happy with the strong hives, as were the bees. What I've learned is I can create conditions where bees will aggressively raise brood, but I also learned that's not always a great thing.

They decided to take the nice weather and great conditions, lots of flowers everywhere, and lengthening days as a signal to swarm.

The lilac, dandelions and many fruit trees were in bloom.

Here one of our bees feasts on autumn olive, a non-native shrub. There were so many bees on these shrubs it was easy to hear the buzzing yards away.

When conditions are great, as they were over the last couple of weeks, and the colony strong, the bees will make a new queen from an egg that they select for that purpose. Then, when that egg is about to hatch, they try and force the old queen out on a swarm to start a new hive.

This takes many forms. Mostly, the workers stop feeding the queen so she's not too fat to fly (no kidding).

So, the queen is in there someplace. Everyone is getting ready to go.

I am trying to observe what's happening. If I could find the queen (good luck!) I could grab her and place her in an empty hive, keeping my precious bees! Having a swarm can really set back a bee colony. Really, it's possible to lose several weeks of productive laying by the queen, and you will lose half your bees! This is why I look so thrilled.

Like broccoli, you can't argue with bees. I can convince our cat not to scratch the couch but bees will swarm once they decide to.

This swarm nicely landed in a nearby tree. We captured them by knocking them into a cardboard box.

Here is what a cardboard box full of bees looks like, in case you ever wondered.

We threw them into the pickup and drove them to Andy's...

...where we set them up in their new home.

Priscilla and I are now capable enough bee keepers to grow bees and keep healthy colonies; we now need to learn to control swarming. So, we're likely to get less honey from the hives that swarmed than we would have otherwise.

Still, we captured 3 of the 6 swarms and colonies started with captured swarms tend to do great!

This is my fourth year bee keeping, and it's clear I still have a LOT to learn. The bees themselves continue to be wonderful teachers.

Happy Spring.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Our Marketing Strategy!

Preservation Honeybee took their show on the road last weekend to the Northampton Gay Pride Parade. We loaded a couch, oriental rug (fake), an Ikea end table, a silver platter (fake), recycled glass pitcher, some glasses and our beloved ceramic cheetah and headed the .45 miles to Main Street Northampton.

For "marketing" purposes we stenciled "" onto two weathered boards we had and balanced them on the truck.

Our friends Sara and Tom hang out at Preservation Honeybee world headquarters, a 1991 Isuzu pickup truck in front Amanouz Cafe on Main Street Northampton.

Sara admires our board with stenciled onto it.

Here the Ceramic Cheetah espies Loreli Eresis AKA Ms. Trans Northampton, who has offically endorsed our Honey. I am not kidding. When it comes to marketing this is how we roll! Her truck looked almost as crappy as our truck.

Lots of potential customers including this synchronized marching shopping cart posse from River Valley Market.

Here the Ceramic Cheetah overlooks all that is wonderful that day in Northampton.

Our awesome crew: Cheetah, Tom, Priscilla (AKA Queen Bee) and Adam (AKA Drone)with special guest Sally.

Here I engage in "extreme marketing" where I try and hug each potential customer, in this case my hometown friend, Casey.

Here the controlling interest in Preservation Honeybee have high level talks on corporate strategy.

He hope you enjoyed this look inside the machine that is

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Requeening and Hive Inspection

A couple of weeks ago when we set up our new hives at Andy's house we did everything we could to ensure success. Because this is agriculture nothing every works out 100%. Three of our bee colonies didn't accept their queen, and so we had to present them with new queens.

The first step was to look into the hives.

You cans see the bees are only on a few frames. They're clustered on the frames we originally put them in. Although 10,000 bees that come in a package may sound like a lot, a mature hive can have around 50-60,000 bees. So these 10,000 barely cover 3-4 frames. Also, bees only live for a few weeks, so we've already started to loose bees. We may have already lost 1-2,000 bees. So getting a laying queen in there is essential.

Here is a frame of bees on way comb they created. The ones that have a yellow color have been filled with pollen, food for the young bee larvae. The black cells are empty. They should each have a tiny white dot, a bee egg or have a developing larvae in them, but these don't.

The bees on the other hand are on top of capped brood. This queen must have come quickly out and started laying right away. The yellow color is capping wax that seals more mature larvae in for the final stage of development. Many times Priscilla and I have seen a new born bee chew it's way out of the capping to make her debut in bee society.

Here I shuffle things around int he hive to make room for the new queen, who waits in a brown paper bag before being introduced to her colony. I think the Queen of England does something like this too on state occasions.

Here is the view inside the bag. Each one of these girls will lay hundreds of thousands of eggs. We may think that machines are pretty amazing, but bees kick butt all over every machine ever made.

Curious worker bees observe the queen. They will feed her thorough the screen until she is released. The queen is held captive by a plug made of candy that the bees will eat away to remove her.

Here is a view between two frames of bees. I cannot express how amazing bee keeping is. If you're asking for an answer about why I do this, here it is.

We've been experimenting with different fuels for our smokers. There is some evidence that Sumac heads may be a mite suppressor. At any rate, it looks good. It's nice to be able to work with a natural product.

This picture you can see an active queen, can you spot her? This is what success looks like.

Hello. Curious bees check us out during the hive inspection. Here you can see that bees cover the tops of many frames in our over wintered hives. I know that bees are insects, but with their furry looking business I can't help but think of them as sweet somehow, as sweet as honey.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Some basics

I’ve been a bee keeper for four years now, and my wife Priscilla and I are making the transition from hobby bee keepers very small scale commercial bee keepers. We’ll have 5 hives in our back yard and 10 nearby at a friend’s house.

This is part of an overall move to urban farming by us. By this I mean we’ve replaced most of our ornamental trees with fruit trees and added berry bushes. We also converted much of our lawn to vegetable gardens. This is all part of a landscape plan for maximum food production, privacy and beauty done by the Conway School of Landscape Design.

Bees were a natural on our .21 acre lot. Our bees gather nectar from thousands of acres of flowering trees and bushes surrounding our home in downtown Northampton. Many people think of beekeeping as being a countryside activity, but in fact bees do great in urban spaces. Think of all the flowering trees and ornamental flowers you see in parks and yards.

When starting with bees you’ll need to order a “package” of bees from someone. This can be done by mail, but we get ours from Warm Colors Apiary in S Deerfield, MA. Most providers begin taking orders in December and are sold out by February. If you want bees in 2011, start reading and planning now!

Each package contains 9,000-12,000 bees and a single queen bee. Most bees on the east coast come from Georgia. Bees should arrive in April or May. You’ll place them in a hive that you assembled and painted over the winter.

As the colony settles in they will start producing wax to make honeycomb and the queen will start laying eggs. She can lay 1,000-3,000 eggs per day! It’s pretty astonishing.

In many ways, beekeeping is different from any other kind of animal husbandry you can imagine. A single hive can contain as many as 100,000 bees, but 50,000 is a more usual or optimal number. So, if all goes well, we will have 750,000 bees in our 15 hives this coming summer. At any given moment on a warm day in July we could have 300,000 bees out and flying over Northampton. We’ll need that many because it takes the nectar of 2 million flowers to make one pound of honey, and for this the bees will fly over 50,000 miles.

Though people know bees make honey from flowers, I find the actual facts staggering. In most flowers there is a tiny drop of sweet water there to attract insects, like bees. In most flowers it would take dozens of these drops to cover the head of a pin. Daily, our army of bees fans out over the city visiting lilacs and dandelions in every nook and cranny where they grow. They fly over the heads of women at the door of Serio’s market, past babies in strollers, over the mayor and around the library.

If you’re more than a few yards away from a hive, you’d likely not know it’s there. In an urban environment bees fly at rooftop level. Bees will almost always fly 10-12 feet above the ground, so you rarely see them except when they come down to visit a flower.

In future articles I’ll talk more about keeping and working with bees, but I thought some basics would be helpful. Bees are wonderful creatures, and about as different from cats and dogs and “normal” animals that we think of when we hear the word as they could be. I find them continually fascinating.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Lunchtime Swarm Prevention

We came home this afternoon to find the bees in the early stages of swarming!

Swarming is a natural reaction to favorable conditions by bees. They create a new queen and about half of the bees leave the hive with her to form a new colony elsewhere. This may be good for the bees, but it means that we have less bees to help make us honey. Moreover, since we are not there to take care of the bees that leave are very likely to die. So, really, nothing good comes of it. Therefore, we stepped in to prevent the bees from swarming!

Here you can see the mass of bees clustering on the ground in front of the hive and on the hive itself. Given another half an hour these bees might have all been in the air with a newly hatched queen off for who knows where!

So, into the bee suit! I had to think quick. I decided to make a "split". This creates an "artificial swarm" by dividing the bees in half so think they've swarmed.

Here I divide the bee hive in half. Now some bees "think" they've left the hive, since they are no longer in a hive with an active queen.

You can still see there are lots of bees in both sides, thousands of bees in fact. They started to swarm as a result of the colony being very healthy and of having used up all the room in the hive to lay eggs. The queen needed more room, so the bees decided to set off!

I shook the bees that were forming the swarm back into the hive. These bees are the "leaders" if they settle in chances are good the "split" tactic will work.

I painted some sugar syrup on empty frames to get bees to create wax comb in it. Bees will often draw comb (create wax) int he presense of weak sugar syrup. Time of of the essence here, since the bees are in a swarming mood! Anything I can do to help them draw comb, I will do!

It's very important that the bees draw comb quickly since the queen has filled all the available space with eggs and brood! The bees have been doing great this summer with the warm snap early on. This type of situation normally occurs in May or June.

Hopefully the bees will quickly draw out new comb for the queen to start laying on so they won't swarm even though we divided the hives!

And the combs go back in the hive!

Since conditions are so conducive to swarming (days getting longer, lots of natural pollen and nectar, strong hives etc) we still will have to work to prevent swarming this spring. Even this split isn't the final step for these two hives. We'll have to take them apart again this Friday and see what's happening inside.

That's bee keeping! There's always a lot to learn.