There are certain pursuits which, if not wholly poetic and true, do at least suggest a nobler and finer relation to nature than we know. The keeping of bees, for instance. --- Henry David Thoreau

"Well," said Pooh, "what I like best -- " and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do,
there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called. -- The House at Pooh Corner

Friday, March 26, 2010

Saving the Bees Just a Little

If you’re a new beekeeper like me, chances are you started doing this not because you had this life-long burning desire to produce beeswax and honey, keep beehives, or immerse yourself in the mysteries of waggle dancing.  Nah, you probably absorbed all the news about the worldwide deaths of honeybee colonies and you were knowledgeable enough to conclude that it was another of those man-made biodisasters that threaten our habitation of this small planet. You read or heard how the beekeepers were losing 50-75% of their colonies; how cellphones, pesticides, viruses and factory-farm methods of beekeeping were doing in our pollinators for good. You added a commitment to do something to save the bees right along with your commitments to the environment, the climate, and the biosphere. Probably said something to yourself like I did, “Dammit, looks like I’m gonna have to save the bees meself; these clowns have no clue about how they are killing the Earth. I’m sure I can do a better job than they have!”

Relax. You’re prolly right that you can and are doing a better job at promoting the safe, organic and natural existence of the bees you are caring for. But come to find out it’s not all that emergent an issue. Not really. The overall opinion seems to be that the bees are in some trouble, but they aren’t gonna die quite yet. It’s gonna be okay.

I just had a nice email correspondence with one of the chief organic and natural beekeeping gurus. Without his permission, I’m gonna quote a paragraph of what he said about CCD and bee deaths: “… note that no one is having trouble getting their crops pollinated, note that the price of package bees has not gone up since CCD hit the airwaves...none of the things that would indicate a functional shortage of bees have happened.
     “imho, the issues surrounding beekeeping are much closer to the issues around feedlot cattle (in that there is no shortage of cattle, but it would be nice if they were treated better and allowed to be cattle) than it is like an endangered species (where one is concerned that the species will die out).  what you are mostly hearing in the media is "the plight of the status quo beekeeper", the bees are, for the most part, doing fine.  certainly there are die offs (there always have been, it's the nature of insect populations), certainly some beekeepers (large and small) have had significant losses that have greatly affected (or buried) their businesses...but at the same time, there is a huge payoff for almond pollination (which comes with huge risks).”

What he said makes a lot of sense, don’t you think?  You can still read the alarmist media hype, you can find a whole spectrum of thought about the CCD thing. But it’s not the worry that it was purported to be.

Far more worrisome is the plight of endangered whales. Far more evil is the human predation on elephants. If  you're a back-to-the-land life changer, or if you’re a greenie tree-hugger environmental animal rights activist  - as I am - who got into beekeeping to save them, you ought to be devoting more concern to those emergent issues. And for sure if you want to have any hope at all of our species living a sustainable life on Momma Earth, we damn sure better do something about the deaths of one third of the amphibians in our chain of life!  Got any frogs?

It’s good to keep these bees. Dee Lusby and friends are correct: they need lots of new organic and natural beekeepers to get aboard and preserve bee genetics and turn around the factory bee farm madness. Sam Comfort is right to want beehives to be as ubiquitous as TVs. By now you’ve found how rewarding to the heart the peaceable contentment of working with the little buzzing gals is. Good for us all! Better still is your commitment to protect the feral honeybee habitat around you by any means you can think of.

But … in the words of Douglas Adams, DON’T PANIC!  Just do your thing, okay? Enjoy being a beek. Continue to educate those around you to those best concepts of sustainability you can live by. My $0.02, YMMV.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Truce With The Know-It-Alls … sort of

It’s no secret that my encounters have not gone well with experienced beeks who have assumed the role of teacher or spokesman. Asking a question of them can get you a snide remark, a put-down, or a twenny-minute rant about what a bothersome newbie you are.  … and no useful answer for your question, however stupid it may have appeared.  I’ve held my remarks about this to a minimum here in the blog, but folks have relayed to me that my antipathy still shows.  I’m, like, really effing sorry, okay?

My bad attitude started just about the same time as my interest in ‘saving the bees’ got serious. I was at that “OMG they’re gonna all die” stage in my learning process. Looking around the web, and the local places like the Extension Service and the State bee guys, I mostly found examples of opinionated know-it-alls who would just as soon you go away, thank you very much. Each one of these curmudgeons had his/her own “one right way” to do things and as a newbie you are supposed to just shut up and do as you are told. That’s kind of a generalization on my part which I will address in a bit, but I did find that beekeepers as a group each have a strongly held opinion that they never feel needs to be modified. I still maintain the perception that as individuals they won't understand that there is more than one way to skin a cat ... ever.

Those of you who have been in the environmental activism game, or who are familiar with Daniel Quinn and his writing will immediately recognize the ‘one right way” fallacy and the implications of such an attitude as being the largest signpost on the Road to Hell.  Those of you who know me, will recognize that such poor thinking would have set me off immediately … and it did.

Now this was about the time that the media hype was getting up to the top of the intensity curve, where it seems to be remaining. There were thousands of us animal rights, tree-hugger, back-to-the-land, greenie activists who got sucked in. We recognized the CCD die-offs as one more example of the destruction mankind was wreaking upon the planet.  … and suddenly thousands of us descended upon the world of beekeeping, asking all those stupid newbie questions, ranting about what was wrong with everything and generally trying learn from those curmudgeon beeks at the same time we were trying to give them the “bigger picture” about the planet, the bottleneck, and Kenyan Top Bar Hives before we knew anything. Needless to say we weren’t – and aren’t – well received. 

There were too many of us, and there was not the perception among the beek organizations on the web or in local organizations that the inundation was not gonna stop. Oh sure, there were a few half-hearted efforts to organize ‘something’ to appease us. And, Goddess bless ‘em, many old-time beeks did in fact try to answer questions and steer us toward becoming responsible beekeepers.  But for the most part, the experienced beeks simply resented and/or ignored the newbies.  You can go to all the websites and groups and see their responses  “This is not the site to discuss introductory things, we’re here to do X, read the FAQ before asking, this has all been rehashed interminable times before, go somewhere else, read a book, etc etc.” 

A poor picture, eh?

There is hope. Now into my second year of beekeeping for real, I’ve come to realize that one can indeed break though that barrier and get straight answers. You just have to learn how to talk to ‘em, Newbeeks. You gotta spoon-feed tiny bits o’ question so that their for-the-most-part-not-well-educated-minds can understand what you want. You do indeed have to do your homework first, read their inadequate FAQs, and read some good books on Beekeeping, especially this one. And fer gawd’s sake go easy about ranting at them about how we’re all destroying the planet and causing global warming and they are part of the problem. (They aren’t ready for that enlightenment yet.) As I have said in other places in the blog: listen, keep yer mouth shut about your progressive ideas; then go home and do things your way.

Besides, they have begun to respond positively. Several of the web forums have some decent newbie sections to get you started. One forum I live on has experienced folks who make a point to welcome new beeks and invite them to share their questions.

I just had a long offline conversation with one of the curmudgeon beeks regarding an issue I was alarmed about, and the guy actually had the good grace to get past my derisive snarkiness and set me straight in a semi-pleasant way.

So, things are getting better for newbies. Don’t give up. The established guys are changing, we’re wearing them down. And it seems the few who awoke to the inundation by us all have sorted out their thoughts and started posting helpful stuff. I failed in my normal perception, too, that folks on the net find it too easy to become jerkasoids, whereas in person they can be much more almost human. A friend of mine relayed this to me when she attended a beek conference and met some of the bigger web curmudgeons, only to find them to be pretty nice guys. (It prolly helps to be smart and gorgeous at the same time, however.) I urge you all to check in with ‘em again, and join your local beekeeping group. This time they might make room for you. They may have actually seen a Top Bar Hive by now.

I’m declaring a truce with the old beeks.  There is much to learn and we must learn it from them. For now, I'm invoking the Thumper Rule regarding them on this blog.

Oh, and don’t be quite so worried about ‘saving the bees’. More about that in the next post.

[added May29,'10  Hoo boy. I lasted 2 months and 3 days maintaining the truce. That's pretty good for me. Several of us kind of had a little run-in with the curmudgeons over on the Organic Beekeeper Yahoo Group. If you're signed up you can see the start of it all the way to where they began blocking posted responses, and then somebody dumped every post I ever put up there. (g) A bit unfair, but that's just the way they roll. I had to terminate my membership. There's still alot to learn about sustainable beekeeping but I'll learn from somewhere else. I guess for me it's back to the Thumper Rule even more forcefully. But, hey, the Natural Beekeeping Network Forum seems very promising. And the UK Warré group has been a wonderful resource.]

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Hard Luck, alright

Awww. The Hard Luck Hive maintains its reputation. The little bees didn't quite make it, despite me leaving them alone and guarding them from the elements. By yesterday, their few forages had turned into none at all. Since it got into the mid-60's today, I risked a quick peek into the top box of the Warre` hive. Alas, lots of dead bees on the bottom board and the top bars and a bunch of dead in the cells. I suspect they just were too small a colony to provide themselves the necessary heat, but I'm too new a Beek to know for sure. It could be that they were already too stressed from lying in the open before I rescued them. It 's still cold mornings here and two frosty nights right after I got them into the Warre` hive probably doomed them. There were just a few bees climbing around on the combs and none at all venturing out. The brood cluster was still intact, but it was dead except for one small corner of very lethargic brood nurses. So sad.

I put the few remaining and quite lethargic little cluster of the crashed bees, along with their remaining piece of brood comb into my small 24" kTBH hive, figuring it's a warmer, more protectable place for them to live out their remaining days while I prep the Warre` for another swarm.

Robbery! I went away to get a bag to store the rest of the honeycomb in for future use, and when I returned to the hive, all of a sudden there were hundreds of bees going in and out! For a second I thought the colony had miraculously revived, but by sitting and watching and thinking it became evident that I was witnessing a full-scale robbery of the hive. I asked myself, "Did I cause that?" I guess the answer is yes.  Probably my opening the hive allowed enough scent out that it attracted the neighboring hive of bees who live a hundred yards away in my neighbor's abandoned Snack Bar Van. So many bees were alighting on the loose comb that big pieces were moving and being dragged across the screened bottom board.

I reached into the hive and retrieved a sizable amount of the honey cells and put them in plastic bags to freeze for later. The robbers just climbed over my fingers and continued to grab what they could, but not a one attempted to sting me.  I brushed off the robbers from the combs I selected and bagged up what I could. I left the rest for them. Towards twilight there was an absolute madhouse as what must have been the whole hive of foragers visited and took away all they could. What a sight!

To protect the last few remaining crashed bees, I plugged up the holes in the 24" kTBH with corks while the robbery continued to take place in the Warre`. I'll unplug them tomorrow and let them do as they will, about a quarter-cup of bees altogether. Never saw a queen. I don't want to add them to Ed's colonies at this point. Seems futile, anyway.

Speaking of Ed's colonies, I went over this morning to feed them and found both the City Bees and the Country Bees out foraging and bringing in lots and lots of bright yellow pollen. Many different plants popped out over the weekend, almost all of them yellow. It appears that spring has begun in earnest. These guys are gonna be fine now.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Hard Luck Hive

This hive has again got some bees in it. I figured these particular bees were so unlucky that the Hard Luck Hive was the perfect home for them ....

I got a call from my experienced Beek mentor friend down the road. Not far from us a landowner had done quite a bit of hollow tree felling on his land down by the Willamette River. There were some cotton woods and some oaks falling over that had big hollow centers and six-foot-diameter trunks.  Somehow a limb on one of the old cottonwood trees still standing had broken off and was lying in the grove. The limb was hollow and had a very old feral bee colony inside. The limb had disintegrated when it hit the ground and there were combs and tree bark and "bees everywhere".  Did we want to come save them?

A quick look revealed that there wasn't much left of the colony: about four or five dinner plate-sized combs representing the remains of the brood nest were on the ground, scattered around were a bunch of pieces of  honey-filled comb. Everywhere there was a bunch of empty dry old comb, in colors from brownish to black. The hive had been laying in the open for a least a day, maybe longer. However there were still a lot of nurse bees tending the brood comb and there was a chance they had kept some of the brood larvae alive. They were a bunch of little Russian-looking feral gals.We tossed a tarp over the whole 'crash site' and I quickly went and got my rescue box and equipment.

I debated for a while with myself to decide which hive I should make ready for them. I had an unpainted new Lang, two vacant KTBHs, the redwood Warre` I had built this winter, and the Hard Luck Hive. Since the Hard Luck Hive was still assembled and in place, it was the best choice; although I would have to 'smoosh' some of the comb into place below the top bars. (I would have had to do that with Lang frames too, and the Kenyan TBHs would have taken a lot more surgery on the exposed combs.)

It was easy to pick up the brood nest, since it was still relatively intact. All the combs stayed together and all the bees just clung to them as I gently laid them in the bee rescue box. Most every one of the 'flyers' orbiting the crash site flew into the box too. There weren't any drones or foragers that we could see. At first I thought that maybe in the limb crash they had all flown away; but on further reflection, I now think that since it is the end of winter, there weren't any more bees present during the disaster but the brood nurses and the queen. I estimate there was only a half-pound to a pound of bees present, altogether. I picked up all the honey comb I could locate, a couple of larger pieces of the empty dried comb and took everything home.

Once home I put the central section of the brood nest and nurse bees in the top box of the Warre`, and secured the combs to the top bars with twine. I leaned the smaller portions of full comb on either side and put the honey-filled comb below it and on the edges of the brood. Since it's still cold out and the brood nest had already been very exposed to the elements, I didn't try to separate any of the combs looking for the queen. She's either in there or she's not. I'll know soon enough.  I just closed up the hive quickly and made sure everything was as welcoming to the new occupants as I could make it. Other than that, I'm leaving them alone to sort themselves out.

We've had a couple of warm afternoons since I put them in the hive.  I was relieved to see a few foragers out and about, going in and out of the hive every time the sun came out. They seem to be happy to be here.

I dunno if the brood larvae have survived the crash. I dunno if there's a queen. If the colony can survive a week or two there will be nectar and pollen aplenty, so they have a chance to make it. If they deplete the honey stores that came with them, I can feed 'em. It would be a good sign if they were depleting those stores, it would mean some new bees were hatching. If the brood hatches and there's no queen, I can always combine them with Ed's Country Bee colony.

They're Hard Luck Bees, but they have a chance now, dontcha think?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My 2nd Year of Beekeeping Begins

There have been occasional warm days ever since the first of  2010. Our surviving colonies -- both of the hives in Ed's Eagle's Rest garden -- have been in and out foraging for nearly a month. While there is lots of tree pollen, not much nectar is available as of yet. I've been feeding them via Boardman feeders; one is inside the 'Country Bees' hive behind the follower board which has a special little notch cut to accept the feeder. The 'City Bees' hive has its feeder at the entrance. Both were small swarms captured last year in June. Neither colony was able to build up to a robust size, but both had collected enough stores to make it through the end of winter.

Now I realize there is some risk of robbing with the one feeder on the outside of the City Bees hive, but the alternative of not feeding is not acceptable. Surprisingly, before I installed the feeders, the bees had consumed all the Christmas candy canes I had placed on the floors of the hives. It's a neat trick I got from the local Beekeepers Association. Yes, I realize that's not a totally organic act, but you do what you have to do.  When our bees have succeeded in storing adequate honey,  I hope not to have to ever feed them sugar syrup or candy canes.

Over the winter I managed to build a redwood Warre` hive, set up my 24" kTBH bait hive, and acquire a Langstroth hive.  Along with my 'Hard Luck' Warre`  and Karen and Maria's now-empty 48" kTBH, that means I have vacancies for five more colonies as my 2nd year of beekeeping begins. I had enough luck last year with swarm catching that I feel confident that I can fill each of those hives.

Redwood Warre` hive  -- sat out most of the winter in the woodshed and is dry and seasoned. Its wooden walls are nearly an inch thick. As-is, the hive is probably impervious to weather damage for years to come; but I intend to put a coat of linseed oil on the exterior anyway. The redwood looks so beautiful when it's finished like that. I modified the roof from Warre's original design. This one has a flat roof copied from David Heath's roof design, which I covered with a corrugated plastic sheet rather than metal.

By the way, I've decided to quit making screened bottom boards for any future hives. Dee Lusby's position that they don't provide much help seems to me to be a pretty convincing argument against going to the trouble of building any more of them.  I'll just keep notes about the successes of the hives with screens and those without. Later on I can see what's right for us.

Bait Hive -- the last of the 2009 plywood hives. It has 18 wax-groove top bars and a nice flat rain-proof roof. Right now it's living on top of the greenhouse, all scented with lemongrass oil, on the off chance that a stray swarm will come along and take up residence. I intend to take it over to the grove of bee trees as Spring warms up. That way I'll have a small portable hive available as the tree colonies produce their annual swarms.

Langstroth hive -- why did I get one? I took Scot McPherson's adage to heart (the kind of box doesn't matter ...) and intend to do organic and natural beekeeping with it. The idea with the Lang is that it'll provide "standardization" to my beekeeping. I can receive and trade frames of brood or "nucs" or a super of bees from any of the conventional beeks around the area. (They're about 99% o f the beekeepers in my part of Oregon.) I can perform splits, maybe. ... and I can do any of the practices the organic langstroth beekeepers do and describe online, without having to modify each action to fit a Top Bar hive.

Actually I simply bought an unassembled deep, western super and a metal cover, all at great sale prices in the Glorybee retail store. I built the stand and bottom board in the same style as my Warre`s, out of pressure-treated lumber to withstand Oregon's muddy conditions. I got a package of frames, too, and set them up with the wedges turned vertically so as to provide a guide for the bees to build their combs naturally.

Hard Luck Hive -- that's what I decided to call my original plywood Warre` hive, seeing as it has lost the first two colonies I introduced to it. The first colony absconded in the first few days of last year's attempts, and the second colony were those ill-fated Oak Tree Bees that were poisoned and all died.  I just repopulated the hive two days ago with a hard luck colony with their own story. (see next post) Who knows if they'll make it!

I gotta find some bees soon for K and M's empty hive. Already their garden is blooming and they need the pollinators quick! (There's a chance that some package bees may come their way.)

I need to get a bait hive over to the Oak Tree Bees before it swarms up into that poisoned attic again.

Don Guill wants a hive. Sean -- Ed's next door neighbor -- loves the pretty yellow and white kTBHs in the Eagle's Rest garden and wants one, too.

I had thought last year that my "to do" list would be less crowded this time around.