Wednesday, December 5, 2012

While Bees Sleep

Did you know that bees actually do sleep? I found a great blog entry with some links to journal articles here. Apparently if sleep-deprived, they are less effective communicators. Maybe I have more in common with the bees than I realized.

So here I am, a couple months later, still a blogging slacker. It's not that nothing has been happening, although the season of bee updates is basically over until spring. Unfortunately fourth quarter in my line of work (my real job, that is) is quite a crazy time. Long days sap most of my energy and rarely do I feel like spending any more time in front of the computer. I'm fairly sure most of my generation will have permanent damage to our eyes from staring at computer monitors for so long.

What has been happening, you ask? Well...
The chicken coop and run are finished.

The chickens are getting bigger and exploring the backyard.

Buttercup is growing into her pouf. 

Oh, and I have a rooster, and he is crowing.

And yes, I realize none of those things are bee related. Weather has been pretty crazy and I've seen my bees out and flying during the last weeks of November. It doesn't seem normal, but there isn't much to compare to since this is my first fall/winter of beekeeping. I spent the month of October thinking about how I needed to feed more, but never actually having time to refill the feeder more than once. I also put about 3/4 cup of mini marshmallows in the hive that the bees can eat over the winter. 

At this point, I think opening the hive would do much more harm than good, so I just have to keep my fingers crossed that they make it while preparing myself that they may not. I managed to make it through my first season without stings, though Rosie dog was not so lucky. She took it upon her dopey self to jump the chicken wire fence I set up around the coop and was promptly stung on two different occasions. I only felt a little bad about it. 

As you can see from the pictures, most of the backyard time for the past few months has been spent on chicken-related pursuits. Last weekend he finally finished the permanent outdoor enclosure. It looks so amazing. It's more awesome than I could have ever imagined. I'm so grateful to my dad for helping me with it. Okay..he did most of the work. The chickens are so very funny and a source of happiness for me every day.  I'm having a hard time thinking of how exactly to thank my dad. How do you thank someone for enabling you to have something that gives such pure and true joy? I'm not sure there's a way. 

I'm still waiting on my first egg. I know it's coming at any moment, just as I knew my rooster would be crowing soon. Hearing his first crow was so exciting, but reality slowly sunk in as he continued to crow and crow and crow and crow... At the moment it's not a problem since it's cold and everyone has their windows shut. When the spring comes, though, I'm not so sure. So I'm faced with a dilemma. Do I keep him until then or find him a home now? I haven't made up my mind yet. I actually enjoy hearing him crow and find it pleasant. At 5 a.m. on a weekend, though? ... maybe not. 

And I know this is a bee/backyard farming blog, but I suppose it's worth mentioning that I met someone who is not only wonderful but also shares my interest in bees. He has seven hives of his own. We can be a couple of bee nerds together without having to hide our true selves. It is rather amazing to meet someone who shares many of the same interests in agriculture and animals as I do. There are areas where his views differ from mine, but it just makes for great conversations. We have much to learn from each other. I hope he'll be around for many seasons to come. 

The bees are sleeping. They probably dream about flowers and sunlight and nectar. Sounds like a nice dream to me. And I am here with expectations,questions, and dreams of my own, heading into winter and staring down my 30th birthday. Things have settled into a good place, finally. Winter cold is coming, but the chickens have a heat lamp, the bees are in their cluster, and my heart is warm, warm, warm.

Life is the flower for which love is the honey - Victor Hugo

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Still Here

I'm back after an unintentional hiatus. I think about blogging a lot, but life is just so full...full of things I have to do, or should do, or moments where I am just frozen and overwhelmed and then do nothing at all.

But I'm still here, and so are the bees. The chickens are here, too, and now taking up more of my time and making me feel neglectful of my lovely little bees that go about their life's work whether I'm paying attention or not. They don't anticipate my visits, or notice my absence. The bees go on living and dying.

I haven't been totally absent, though. I've been checking in on my friends to make sure all is well. My concern grew last month after their failure to start building more new comb, so after seeking advice from a trusted online group dedicated to natural beekeeping in top bar hives, I started feeding back the honey I had harvested. The bees took it happily and I did start to see a bit of progress, more honey storage, and more activity in general. I think it was the boost they needed. Unfortunately, though, it also brought something else to light: the very first pest I've seen in my hive. When I went in to refill the feeder and lifted it off the base, I saw a few small black beetles scatter. A quick online search confirmed my suspicions. It was the small hive beetle. These beetles made there way here from Africa during the 90's, and they love honey. They live inside hives where their larvae tunnel through honeycombs and can cause honey to ferment in hives with heavy infestation.

The bees have their ways of controlling things, though. I read that bees will actually corral the beetles into "jails" built of comb on the sides of the hive. The beetles, not to be outdone, have figured out a way to trick nurse bees into feeding them. In the end, they are only a serious problem for weak hives. Is my hive weak? Possibly. I took my worries to the online group again, and a total stranger in Texas sent me some of the traps she uses in her hives. It was such a kind gesture from a total stranger. I have one of the traps in the hive now, hopefully killing those stupid beetles so my bees can worry about getting things ready for the coming winter instead of trying to corral beetles.

It's time for me to start seriously feeding so they can build up enough stores to make it through winter. I've heard lots of different stats about probability of a hive making it through winter. At the moment I'm concerned that my hive does not have nearly enough honey stored up to last, so I'm going to start feeding in a major way to hopefully help make up for that. I also read that you can leave a sheet with granulated sugar in the hive over winter or make "bee candy" as emergency food. I know there is chance that they won't make it. I suppose I'm mentally preparing myself if that happens, but I can't say I won't be pretty sad if it does.

Of course I could start over with a new package or a swarm next spring, but how wonderful would it be to see my hive continue to grow from what I started from a small box this past April? We shall see. At the moment they've only built on two new bars (as of last inspection). They finally started building on the new comb guides and thankfully things seem nice and straight.

The bees are noticeably more defensive and irritable, which is normal for this time of year, but doesn't help me. The less I suit up and open the hive, the harder it gets for me to go back in there. Earlier in summer I had gotten to a point where I was not nervous at all while working with them, but a couple of weeks ago I had a bee chase me all the way back to the house and it unnerved me a bit. Knowing that they're going to be more protective now of their precious stores doesn't do much to boost my courage, but I try to focus and trust the jacket to save me. I'm not sure if they could sting through my jeans. Hopefully that's not something I have to find out.

In other news, the chicken coop is now complete, and my little peeps are officially moved in. They are 7 weeks old now and not little at all any more. There are a couple that are very wary of me, but one is quite friendly and will sit on my shoulder. My dad and I still have to finish the permanent outside run and add nest boxes, but for now I've set up a temporary area where they can come outside. They love to come out and scratch on the ground looking for bugs. I let them out last weekend as I was painting and could barely bring myself to close them back in again because they looked so happy. A corner of the pen was sunny, and they had all flopped down to sunbathe, legs and wings outstretched in all directions. They are endlessly amusing. I can't wait until they're bigger and I can let them out in the yard on weekends when I'm home.

Fall is most definitely here, and we are all making some sort of preparations. Take your honey back, my dear bees. Take these golden liquid memories of summer to sustain you through the cold winter days.

Life goes on in the backyard.

    Then, when the late year wastes,
    When night falls early and the noon is dulled
    And the last warm days are over,
    Unlock the store and to your table bring
    Essence of every blossom of the spring.
    And if, when wind has never ceased to blow
    All night, you wake to roofs and trees becalmed
    In level wastes of snow,
    Bring out the Lime-tree-honey, the embalmed
    Soul of a lost July, or Heather-spiced
    Brown-gleaming comb wherein sleeps crystallised
    All the hot perfume of the heathery slope.
    And, tasting and remembering, live in hope
-From "Honey Harvest" by Martin Armstrong

Monday, August 13, 2012


The year the bees came
Was a warm spring
Hot nights when it was easy
To transform

The year the bees came
Was the summer my tears boiled
I might have flown on their wings
Had it not been for this weight
of sadness
They navigate the horizon
And I wander

-SEH 7/12

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Episodes 11 & 12: The One with the Wardrobe Malfunction

...And also "The Backyard: It's not just for bees anymore."

Well, yes, it's been a while. Even though I haven't been blogging, I have been checking in on the bees. After my initial inspection post cross-comb correction, I didn't really see much in the way of new comb, but I chalked that up to the fact that the bees were busy rebuilding the other areas in the hive that had been torn up and rearranged.

A couple weeks later, I went back to take a peek and was somewhat surprised to find that they still hadn't built new comb. The brood pattern was looking really good, though, so I wasn't too worried. I think the nectar flow is slowing down now, and I still have yet to feed back any honey that was harvested earlier this summer. I thought I would give it some more time. So when I opened up the hive again today, I was concerned when once again, there was almost nothing in the way of new comb. 

One of the bars where comb was cut off. We stuck a small piece on which is what you see protruding. This has not changed in over 2 weeks.  

"Oh, look at this nice comb guide. Let's not build anything on it."

So, what are they doing? They are raising lots of brood. I have seen tons of bees coming in with pollen, which is another indicator that they are in brood-rearing mode. Something else I noticed was the lack of drone comb and drones in general. I've seen absolutely zero drones the last two times I checked the hive, and no drone comb at all. When I first started, there was always some drone comb. I'm wondering now if that was because I had a laying worker instead of a queen bee. Anyhow, it seems they've kicked the boys out for the time being. I got a pretty cool shot today of uncapped brood in various stages of development. 

The bees were definitely storing some honey above the brood nest, which is a good sign. And guess what else??? I saw the queen again. And not only did I see her, but I got a picture! I know you're probably not as excited as me, but here she is in all her royal majesty:
She's right in the middle, with a larger body and bit more reddish-gold in color

As I went about working the hive and pulling out each bar to check, I felt something strange. It's still hot, but it seemed like I was getting more of a breeze than usual. I looked down only to find that the zipper on my bee jacket was broken, and it was unzipped halfway up from the bottom, not giving me much in the way of protection. And as luck would have it, under the jacket I was wearing the color they say you should never wear when working with bees: black. So what did I do? I stopped to take a picture for you, of course, and then I kept on going. I thought about stepping a way for a minute to try and fix it, but I would have had to take off the veil, and the bees were being fairly cooperative. 
Walter T Kelly, this is a FAIL!

I'm a bit concerned about this happening again, and also rather disappointed considering that I bought this jacket in April. Luckily things ended up fine. 

When I started this bee adventure, I never imagined that I would want more hives so soon, but I do. Next year I'm sure I'll add at least one. But this year I have another exciting new addition: chickens! I'm not sure when the chicken idea started. I've loved animals since I was a kid, and the dream of living on a farm was always part of my horse obsession. When I started researching backyard bees, I also came across a lot of information about backyard farming, homesteading, and urban chickens. It sparked my interest and I began to do more research. In early July I went to a workshop in Indiana about keeping backyard chickens. The woman who gave the workshop brought four of her own hens along. One of them laid an egg during class, and afterwards we even got to hold them. After that day I knew that I definitely wanted chickens. They are really fascinating creatures with so much personality, and I loved the idea of getting fresh eggs from my backyard. 

I am lucky not only to have a supportive family, but also a family full of skilled and handy people. My dad drew up the plans for a coop, and the two of us along with my grandpa have been working on it for the past two weekends. It's going to be a nice sized coop with an attached enclosed run for the chickens. At the end of this I will not only have this awesome place for my chickens to live, but also some new knowledge and skills. Hopefully it will bring me one step closer to being able to build things myself. It's so awesome. I also really appreciate being able to spend that time with my dad and grandpa. It will make me happy when I see it everyday and know that we built it together.

The beginnings of the coop on the left, and my beehive on the right. 

Last week I got my chicks and they are incredibly cute. I could watch them for hours. I took a video, but I must warn you that my video skills are basically nonexistent. You might still want to watch though, just to hear their super cute happy peeping. And yes, that is an egg they're eating. Supposedly it's good for them. Rosie has a barking cameo about halfway through. 

Right after I took this video, a bee flew into the garage. I think it was on a kamikaze mission. I do feel slightly neglectful of my other creatures now that I have these cute little chicks, but I'm sure things will calm down and I will find a routine that allows plenty of time for all of them. 

Lots of excitement going on around here. I love it. After that chicken workshop, we walked across the street to see an all organic, self-sustaining farm that was also home to three flocks of chickens. Walking through the fields with rows of vegetables, pastures full of cows, and into barns full of chickens, I thought my heart would explode with happiness. It reminded me of the feeling I get when I walk into a barn with horses, or driving through the mountains in Oregon. There is just something there that kindles the flame of happiness in me. Something about those places feels like "home." And right now I can't have a horse or a barn, or relocate the Cascades to Ohio, so I'm building this dream in my backyard with bees, chickens, a compost tumbler, and next year, a garden full of fruits and vegetables. 

I think someday I'll probably have that farm I dream about, but at least today I can have a piece of it in my suburban (well, practically urban) backyard. Knowing that I have all this life around me is pretty amazing. Knowing that with some luck and some hard work I can keep it going and even expand and grow gives me a hope and a happiness that I struggle to describe. I'm looking forward to telling you all about it. 

I've stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it's rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

I want to go in the back yard now

-From "A Song in the Front Yard" by Gwendolyn Brooks

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Memories in Honey

Dear Bees,

It seems that in righting your crooked combs, we have have set things right in the hive overall. I'm so glad the mysterious queen finally made an appearance. I wish you could tell me what happened to the original queen, but maybe you just knew she was not your own. One special egg was laid and fed royal jelly so that your very own queen could emerge and reign over the  hive. It makes me smile.

I know that I still have quite a bit of your honey. Don't worry, my little friends. I am going to give it back to you. I just have to figure out the best method of delivery. I've had a little for myself, and I must say, it's very flavorful. A friend of mine who tried it said that the first flavor had a hint of freshly cut hay. 

I wonder if when you eat your honey you can taste each flower and tree that played a part in its making. When you taste it, do you feel the breeze that took each worker on her path to find nectar? Do you see the color of each flower for just one second? Part of the honey making process involves worker bees passing the nectar back and forth so that some of the moisture is lost. When you pass that nectar along, do you pass the memory of your flight, the way the light was hitting the leaves, or the scent of the flower? I guess those jars of honey in my house must hold thousands of tiny memories of flying and of warm winds. 

These are the things I think about when I watch you coming and going. I really wish I knew where that brilliant red pollen comes from. On warm days, I see you on the front of the hive, moving up and down rhythmically. I learned that this is called "washboarding," and it is one of the many bee mysteries that no one has figured out yet. No one knows why you do this dance, but there is speculation that it is a social activity. Maybe you are giving thanks. They say that only healthy, happy bees will do this. I hope it means that you are happy. 

I hope you're still keeping things straight in there, and raising all your babies to make the hive strong. I suppose it's been a bit of a rough patch for us, but we'll get through it. 


"What you hold, may you [always] hold,
What you do, may you [always] do and never abandon.
But with swift pace, light step,
Unswerving feet,
So that even your steps stir up no dust,
May you go forward
Securely, joyfully, and swiftly,
On the path of prudent happiness,
Not believing anything,
Not agreeing with anything
That would dissuade you from this resolution
Or that would place a stumbling block for you on the way...."

- Clare of Assisi
"The Second Letter to Agnes of Prague." 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Episode 10: Queenright

Finally! Three months after installing my first package of bees, I found the queen. Today during my hive inspection, I began pulling out the third bar from the front and heard a louder buzz come up from the hive as I lifted it up. That was my first clue. I thought: she must be here. Sure enough, there she was in her royal majesty, looking just like a queen bee should. She was large and golden and just perfect.

When I bought my package in April, I paid a little extra for a marked queen. The queen I received had a white dot on her back. I remember thinking that she didn't really look like what I imagined a queen would (much smaller), but I just went with it. Well, guess what my queen bee does not have? That's right, no white dot to be found. So, either what I got wasn't really a queen (unlikely) or, the queen I got died or was killed. My hive made and raised its very own, homegrown queen bee. This also means she probably mated with local drones, so my hive is not really Russian bees but a sort of local mutt strand. Although it sounds bad, it's actually better for me. Local feral bees have survived the parasites that are taking out so many hives these days, and their resistant genes have been passed to my queen and then to my hive. I'm thrilled.

The corrections from a few weeks ago continue to look good. We cut out a lot of honey comb at that time, but it also seemed that there wasn't much brood to be found. Today, every bar has brood on it, as well as capped honey. I saw no drone comb at all. The bees also don't seem to be building much in the way of new comb. While I'm slightly concerned about their honey stores and wondering if I need to start feeding the harvested honey back, I'm happy to see a much stronger brood pattern. I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that the comb is now all straightened out.

Liz should be coming back in the next couple of weeks, so I look forward to being able to ask her about these things. My gut feeling says that all is as should be in the hive now, but I want to make sure that my bees have what they need to make it through winter.

So I have learned in these past weeks from my bees, that sometimes you have to cut things away in order to set them right. It may be difficult and painful, but the result will be something better and healthier.

Here's to you, my bees, and to me... And most of all, to health.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Episode 9: Progress

Since we finally got a break with the weather today, I decided to go out and check on the bees. I hadn't opened the hives in almost two weeks, since we made all the adjustments to fix the cross comb, and I was a little nervous about what I would find. I was also afraid that the bees would react more strongly to me messing with them after being traumatized. Thankfully that was not the case.

I can't imagine working my bees in the weather we've been having. Getting suited up and working with temperatures in the mid 80's was hard enough. I had a tank top on under my bee jacket, and I was dripping sweat the whole time. I'm not really sure how beekeepers in places like Florida, Texas, and other southern states do it.

Upon opening up the hive, I was super excited to see that there was no new cross combing! All the combs we had straightened out were still straight, and I was able to pull out all the bars and inspect them with no problem at all. There was a lot of brood and some capped honey on all the bars. I looked for the queen briefly, but she still managed to elude me somehow.

I took out a small bar at the entrance that was but there to give the bees space but seemed to be causing more problems (they were building comb on it.) I was pretty proud of myself for operating a phillips head screwdriver while wearing over sized gloves and dripping sweat.

Just about an hour ago, I looked outside and saw a lot of activity at the entrance. I'm not sure if it was a lot of bees coming back to the hive before it rains, or if this is an orientation flight. Orientation is when new worker bees fly in figure eights outside the hive entrance to sort of memorize the way the hive and the horizon look so they can find their way back after they go out foraging for nectar and pollen. Sorry about my lack of video skills, but here is a short clip of what I saw.

Pretty cool, I think. I feel so peaceful watching them, and they don't pay much attention to me. I think they're used to my presence now.

In other backyard news, my dad said he would help me build a chicken coop. I can't tell you how excited I am! It's another step on my way to having my own little backyard farm. I've been doing lots of reading, too, and next weekend I'm going to a workshop about backyard chickens. So hopefully before the end of the summer, this blog will be about birds and bees!

Things have been a bit personally tumultuous for me lately, but my little winged friends are a constant presence. I know I can count on their coming and going each day just like the rising and setting of the sun. It's funny how little flying insects somehow seem to anchor me in a way.

For Joy's Sake, From My Hands
by Ossip Mandelstam
For joy's sake, from my hands,
take some honey and some sun,
as Persephone's bees told us.

Not to be freed, the unmoored boat.
Not to be heard, the fur-booted shadows
Not to be silenced, life's dark terrors.

Now we only have kisses 
dry and bristling like bees,
that die when they leave the hive.

Rustling in clear glades of night,
in the dense forests of Taygetos,
time feeds them; honeysuckle; mint.

For joy's sake, take my strange gift,
This simple thread of dead, dried bees, 
turned honey in the sun.