Thursday, April 25, 2013

The queen is dead! Long live the queen!

Today, I had to do it scared. Not replacing the drone-laying queen was not an option, and finding the her took me a horrible 15 minutes during which I was convinced those bees remembered me from yesterday. I smoked them half to death (and I'm sure I smell great, myself) in an attempt to keep them humming peaceably rather than buzzing at an angry high pitch. Eventually I found the queen and jailed her, installed the new queen inside her cage as I've shown before, and closed up as quickly as calmly possible. 


Then I took the head off the old queen (oh how French Revolution of me) and preserved the rest of her body in alcohol for a day, before disposing of it. I have learned yesterday that one can use her pheromones for other beekeeping purposes, such as to lure a stray swarm of bees. 

Bee wise: The queen's life is amazing and precarious. She hatches, and if she's not immediately killed (because there is a strong, active queen in the hive already), she is fed by the workers and embarks on one of the very few flights of her life. She dates something like 20 gentlemen, ideally. This is good for genetic diversity. If she makes it back without getting eaten by a bird or something, the hive has a new queen and she will start laying eggs. Mostly female baby bees, since the hive needs lots of workers. A few drones (boys), just to keep the species going. They have little function in the hive. Problems arise if she comes back unmated, because then she will only produce male offspring and the hive is doomed without intervention. So that's your bee-ology lesson for the day!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Good Girls and Bad Boys (a cautionary tale)

I knew it was time to look at the hives again, so I parked the two younger kids in front of their favorite show, and told them to stay inside from where they'd also be able to watch me inspect the hives if they wanted to. 
I used my newly-acquired best practices, lit the smoker (a few dozen times, until it stayed lit), and took a peek. In the left hive, this is what I found:

What you see is a nice brood pattern of flat capped cells in the middle, open cells containing larvae around them, and even a bulging new queen cell right at the edge of where the bees ran out of drawn comb. In the top right corner you see the white capped honey cells that will serve to nourish the hive. I saw all I needed to see - the eggs, the queen, all stages of brood. The bees were happy and calm. I debated calling it a day and assuming the other hive would be the same. Yet something nagged at me to just make sure.
And oh, that intuition, that divine voice telling us what we sometimes don't want to hear....  this is what I found in the right hive, where the bees were noticeably less peaceful, and hated my presence: 
A lumpy, bumpy mess. I didn't immediately recall what this meant but I knew it was bad news. I was a bit shaken up and closed the hive, to go research how to proceed.

Then of course, the crucial photos I wanted to send to my bee mentors and teachers were corrupted and this is where the day really went downhill. I decided to just go and take another picture - real quick, you know? I didn't re-light the smoker, and I zipped up my hood in a hurry. I re-opened the hive and was greeted immediately with an angry high-pitch buzzing sound. I pulled out a frame and took my pictures, when I notice a bee inside my hood. Instinctively, I raised my hand to squash it. Except my hand was covered in bees, and now I had a handful of them under my hood. My zipper was not fully zipped, as it turned out. I threw the hood off my head and ran, but I had already been stung under the eye and under the chin. I tore the jacket off myself, but the bees were stuck on my head, buzzing angrily. I could not escape the sound! Several more bees were circling me as I was running zig-zag through the yard, yelling at the kids to stay away. I squeezed my hair with my kid leather gloves to kill the bees but I wasn't successful. Eventually a bee ended up under my shirt, so I tore that off, too, and I'm still thanking the sweet Lord that I had a sports bra on underneath.
I ended up having to go inside and use a hair brush to brush the live bees out of my hair. Finally, I could not hear any more buzzing. My ears were ringing. My jacket was sitting on the ground, still a few bees in and on it. And of course, I had a job left to do. The hive was still open!
So yes, I had to put that jacket back on, zip the hood back up, and walk towards those bees. I did what had to be done and came home to take 2 benadryl, just in case.

Bee wise: The culprit was an unmated queen. She does lay eggs, but they will only produce drone (male) offspring. This isn't obvious to the observer until the brood is capped. A beehive is supposed to have about 10% drones, who really don't do any of the work, they're just mouths to feed as far as the worker bees are concerned. And in this hive, the balance was already off, the worker bees could sense that something wasn't right, and as a result, they're quick to anger! The solution is to remove the unmated queen and install a new, mated queen.

Bee wiser: Do not take shortcuts. No hurry, no 'quick picture', no quick anything. I have learned a valuable lesson (I do not learn from books or advice, only from experience. You'll find that to be a theme around here. Luckily I have a minimal reaction to beestings). Beekeeping is going to teach me to be Zen. Yes it will!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A blast from the past

This week, we were traveling and exploring Washington, D.C. A lot to see and learn. This short paragraph at the National Museum of American History struck me as so appropriate for our times. Of course the words relate to the depression era. But really, aren't they applicable today? Another recession, caused in part by private choices. A global environmental crisis on many levels, again, caused in part by private choices. I think there is a role for the government now, just as there was one then. I hope they're up to the task. Meanwhile, I'll continue my best to try (and sometimes fail) to make the good, responsible private choices.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The learning curve

It took me a long while to get to know our property. We removed trees and cleared brush and debris, rediscovered old stone walls. The place was changing. When we cleared a large level space near the back of the yard, I was happy to have the 'perfect' spot for a production garden. Not in the way of entertaining friends or children playing. Not unsightly as production gardens can be....

I spent 4 seasons working the soil, learning what grows (potatoes! green beans!) and what doesn't (tomatoes).

Yet only this spring did I realize the full extent what 'choose your garden site wisely' really means.

These two pictures were taken on the same day. My old garden is still covered in snow. The site of my new garden was dry for several weeks and has small green sprouts peeking out of the gray grass. A lesson learned. Observe! Take a while to get to know your place!