Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Balanced Below the Hive

One of our bees, at work on a sunflower.

I’m still seeing pollen enter the hive—a good sign. The bees have been cleaning up the sugar water relatively quickly. I’ll add more tonight, but I’m hoping that I’ll see more comb being drawn out on frames when we open the hive on Sunday.

Wanting to see into the hive without disturbing the hive, I get on the ground and stretch out flat on my back with my head resting beneath the hive. I glance across the yard, hoping my neighbor doesn’t see me, as she might be alarmed to see me prone on the ground by my beehive. But an overgrowth of tomato plants and zinnias rise between us and I'm glad she can't see me and wonder about her strange neighbor. 

Looking up from beneath the hive.
Because hive boxes have no top or bottom, and the frames hang inside like files in a cabinet, you can see into the hive from beneath. First, you see a screened “bottom board” that allows for ventilation but keeps critters out of the hive. Just about a half inch above the screen, you can see the bottom edges of the frames.

I settle in, my legs stretched out and ankles crossed. My awareness of the outside world shrinks to just the space between my eyes and the hive, which is about a foot above my gaze. I can see what looks like discarded larvae on the screen as housekeeping bees occasionally pulled it toward the hive opening. Bees walk back and forth, up into the frames, over the wax, and busily doing what bees do. From the bottom, it still doesn’t look like they are building on the new frames, though could be that I just can’t see their progress since they start at the top of a frame and build comb down.

From my vantage point beneath the hive, I feel a settling sense of peace. How strange to feel so relaxed and peaceful with a large number of stinging insects suspended above me.

We are often separated from wildness in a way that lessens our lives as humans. In an interview with writer David Kupfer, poet Terry Tempest Williams said of the often distanced relationship between humans and wildlife:

We become disconnected, we lose our center point of gravity, that stillness that allows us to listen to life on a deeper level and to meet each other in a fully authentic and present way.”

And perhaps that is what I find there, beneath the bees—a center point of gravity. I regain my footing in the hum of the bees. I’m an observer, and these small winged beings encourage stillness in their presence.

I don’t spend as much time beneath the hive as I would like to. I need to water the garden and check on the hens. Dinner is yet to be made, and there is always work to be done. Reluctantly, I leave bee-viewing for the night, but I do so feeling greater equilibrium, as if the hum of bees has calibrated the balance in my bones.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Carb Cutting: What Honey Brings to the Table

Dark honey -- like this buckwheat honey -- is high in antioxidants.
I have been working on cutting carbs at the same time as I’m feeding sugar to my bees and looking forward to their honey. A bit of a disconnect, I suppose. Though, truth be told, it’s not the honey that I’ve been most excited about, it’s the pollination they bring to my garden and the feeling that I’m helping honeybees survive that rewards my efforts as a beekeeper.

Honey is a natural sweetener that seems intuitively good to me (besides having a far more complex sweetness than sugar). It has antibacterial, antiseptic properties reputed to heal. Some say it can heal and soothe bedsores when nothing else works; and it’s like a natural allergy fighter for people with pollen-related allergies. But what about the nutritional aspects of this golden, flower-based sweetener?

My mom recently recommended a book called “The Sugar Smart Diet.” Interesting book. It points out the problems with zero-calorie and low-cal sugar substitutes—even with sweeteners like stevia. Reading it, I was beginning to feel a little guilty about that honeybee-managed sugar factory sitting in my back yard.

Then I read this paragraph:

“…honey contains an estimated 180 different substances—proteins, enzymes, amino acids, minerals, vitamins, phytochemicals—that may account for its health promoting effects. For example, gram for gram, honey is as rich in antioxidants as some fruits and veggies…even small amounts may offer some protection against cancer and promote heart health. In test tube studies, honey—the darker the better—slows the oxidation of LDL cholesterol in human blood.”
~ The Sugar Smart Diet, by Anne Alexander

Well. As if I needed another reason to be amazed by bees.

Honey is not the only substance produced by bees. Propolis is a tar-like glue that bees create to fill in cracks and close gaps, but it has been studied for its potential in treating numerous illnesses from cold sores to cataracts to cancer. Bee pollen and royal jelly are also purported to be beneficial. But I’d not heard much about what honey itself brings to the table.

I’m working on cutting carbs and reducing the amount of sweeteners in my diet, but in this case, my instincts about honey as a beneficial side-effect of pollination seem justified. All things in moderation, of course, but it makes me feel happy to read about the natural goodness in the sweetener my bees are producing.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Queen Cups & Cells

Small supercedure queen cup at center; capped honey above.

Sunday afternoon, as we noted bees visiting the borage and roses and thyme, we suited up for a visit to the hive. I readied our tools and supplies on a small table next to the hive so they’d be close at hand:
  • ·      hive tool, which is sort of like a combo scraper, pry tool, hook and handy earwig squasher-head-chopper-offer.
  • ·      bee brush, to help gently move the bees so they don’t get squashed.
  • ·      Smoker, lit and ready, with holly wood shavings smoldering inside. I don’t really like to smoke the hive, but I like to have it handy just in case.
  • ·      Phone, so I can take a photo
  • ·      Notebook/pen, to make notes about each frame and what’s happening in the hive. This helps with comparisons from week to week. 

We lift off the copper-topped lid, then gently remove a flat board called an inner cover. It keeps the bees from gluing the top lid down, and is easier to pry off if they do glue it down (they like to button things up tightly with a waxy glue called propolis).

Beneath the lid, looking straight down into the hive box, the first thing you see are eight slats of wood, which are the top bars of the frames that hold the comb, brood, foundation, and honey. Bees clammer over and around the bars as we peer at them. Everyone looks busy, and this time we locate the queen relatively easily, at work on frame 4 just about in the center of the hive.

She was just in the process of laying an egg, and our interruption caused her to pull out of the cell too early. We watch her, circled by attendants, as she moves to another cell.

When we lift frame 5, we see capped honey reserves just below the bar, then empty cells. But what catches our eye first is a “bump” over the cells—sort of like an open wax bubble. It is almost centered in the frame, an opening facing downward—instantly recognizable, even for us newbies, as a queen cup.

Bees are amazing creatures, and if they sense any problems with the queen, they’ll begin to build what are called “supercedure” queen cells. If a queen is missing, they may build an emergency queen cell, and if they are preparing to swarm because overcrowding in the hive, they’ll build swarm cells.

Swarm cells tend to be along the bottoms of the frames. And we know our hive is not even close to over-crowded. Since we just noted that Her Royal Highness is alive and well, we can assume it’s not an emergency cell.

So what does a supercedure cell mean? From what I’ve learned, it depends. In a fully operational, established colony it may mean that the queen is aging or not producing sufficiently, and in the natural order of things she is to be replaced. In a newly established colony, it might be that the queen isn’t up to speed in her new home, and the workers are hedging their bets—kind of a just-in-case scenario. One article I read suggested clipping off the queen cell in that case.

A queen has a life expectancy of about three to four years. She leaves the hive by herself only once in her life, on a mating flight, then returns to the hive to lay as many as 200,000 eggs in a year (totally puts our hens to shame, eh?). The only other time a queen would leave the hive is if the hive splits in a swarm—the old queen, surrounded by workers and drones, departs to establish a new colony, leaving her old home in the care of a new queen.

Typically, two to three new queens may be raised simultaneously by the workers. One will emerge first. The others will make a distinct sound as they emerge, which allows the first queen hatched the opportunity to find and kill them before they emerge. If she kills the others before they fully emerge, she can do so with far less risk of injury to herself. Otherwise, queen-to-queen combat could result in both queens dying and the colony suddenly becoming queenless.

In our case, since there is only one small cup started, we’re leaving the bees to take care of things. A fully developed queen cell is enclosed, and shaped a little like a small peanut, hanging vertically to the frame. We’ll see how things look when we pull the frames out next week. But for now, we put the frames back together, carefully move a few bees away from the lid so we can close it without crunching anyone beneath it. A pollen-laden worker is returning from foraging, and we leave them to get on with their steady work of gathering and building.



Thursday, June 26, 2014

Broody Hen and Predator Corn

Cotton's clutch is confiscated.
Lest you wonder if I traded in my hens for bees, fear not.  There are nine laying hens now, and they continue as entertainment and egg producers. Oreo remains the senior citizen of the group. Thelma and Louise, the two black australorps, are still bossy and glossy and think highly of themselves. Pip is next oldest. She remains one of our best layers, with nice big blue eggs regularly appearing in the nesting box. Nettie, Rosemary, and Hazel all came to the coop together, and are doing well. Our two youngest hens are Cecily, the little barred rock bantam, and Cotton, the cochin bantam that Oreo adopted and raised.

Cecily and Cotton will be going to the fair with L this year. Cecily is one of the sweetest hens we’ve had. She loves to be picked up and carried around. Cotton has gone broody. That means that all she wants to do is sit on all the eggs and raise chicks. She’s not laying, not eating, not happy unless she’s on the nest. I take the eggs away every evening and she complains and gives me a disgruntled look as I reach beneath her to steal the unfertilized eggs she’s keeping warm. She shoots lasers at me with her glare, but doesn’t peck at me. I feel bad taking her eggs and sometimes don't get all of them, which means that on some days, I have a big haul and a sad hen.

Trying to coax her out of the coop yesterday morning after taking all the eggs, I decided to take a special treat to the hens before I left for work. We had two leftover ears of roasted corn on the cob. They were still sheathed in crispy charred husks, so I stripped the husks back but didn’t pull them off completely. I tossed one toward the back of the run, not considering that with the husks flowering out behind the bare ear, they looked a bit like a big-tailed bird flying through the air.

From the reaction of the hens, they looked like big-tailed PREDATOR birds flying through the air. Clucks erupted. Feathers flew. Nine hens took to the air in a chaos of panicked chickens. Then they crowded together in the corner of the coop, looking bug-eyed at the scary thing that had just landed in their run. They love corn on the cob, so I thought they’d rush the two ears.

Pip was the bravest among them, and she approached the ears cautiously. She practically creeped toward them. “Corn,” I said. “It’s corn, you guys. Not a predator.” They did not spare me a glance as Pip proceeded on her dangerous, sacrificial mission.

Standing as far away from the ear as she could while still within pecking distance, Pip snatched at the corn, prepared to flee. When it didn’t do anything, she tried again. The other hens watched. She began to get closer, visibly relaxed, and began to peck quickly, using her solo time to eat as much corn as quickly as possible.

Eight other hens left their safe huddle and hurried over as if to say, “Oh, CORN. Well, why didn’t you say so?” And then they stripped each ear perfectly kernel-less. And Cotton went back to her empty nesting box and waited for other hens to provide her with a new clutch. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Scent of Beeswax

Honeycomb built over wax foundation, which can be seen along the lower edge of this photo.
There is, in beekeeping, a sense of providing a place for the wild in the midst of everyday domesticity.  I spent Saturday morning putting wax foundation in frames for the bees, working on my back patio, as the bees gathered nectar from nearby cranesbill geranium and raspberry blossoms. Occasionally, a forager would come investigate my work, and I felt for the most fragile moment a sense of connection. We were all working together toward the good of the hive. They hummed like violins while I organized my supplies.

Within the traditional hive there are eight to 10 frames that bees build their comb on. They build with stunning geometric precision. Some beekeepers simply provide bars (horizontal wood slats that serve as guides) or empty frames and allow the bees to build comb as they like.  Others place “foundation” into the frames. Foundation can be made of beeswax that’s molded in the honeycomb pattern, or it can be honeycomb imprinted plastic or wax/coated plastic.

A single bee visits 50 to 100 flowers on each collection trip away from the hive, and bees travel the equivalent of twice around the world to make one pound of honey. It takes them eight pounds of honey to make one pound of beeswax. To try to give my bees a head start on wax production, so they can put their energy into foraging and hive strength, I have chosen to use wax foundation. I don’t really care for the plastic foundation, but every beekeeper has an opinion on foundation.

To put foundation into a wooden frame, I tap brass eyelets into the sides of the frames, then thread a fine wire back and forth across the frame. The wafer-thin sheet of wax will be placed against the wire, then the wires are embedded into the wax by heat. The wire gives the foundation stability and strength. It’s a slow process, and the smell of beeswax drifts up to me. It’s a scent that my DNA seems to recognize built on generations of humans who’ve benefited from the grace of bees.

Beekeeping is different than caring for livestock. My chickens depend on me for water and food. They range only as far as my fencing allows. I feed them, provide calcium for them, make sure they are in at night for safety.

But if I didn’t create a hive and place frames in it, the bees would still do what they do. They go where they wish to go. They raise their queen and gather nectar and pollen with or without me, and they aren’t domesticated creatures bent to my will. The only insects that produce food humans consume, they haven’t evolved over centuries to serve humans, in fact the opposite could be said. Humans have developed systems—different hive designs and methods—to fit the bees’ needs, not vice-versa. We have created ways to contain them for our convenience. But the beekeeper is a steward, not a director.

 I twist a wire around a nail and watch as a bee supervises my progress. She clambers over the stack of waiting foundation, drawn by its beeswax scent. Then, as if reminded of her own work, buzzes off to gather nectar or pollen—possibly to build more honeycomb over the foundation that is already in place. It is an industrious peace we share.