Monday, September 5, 2011

Thieving from the Bees

The honey harvest is on! Actually it's probably just about over. We've been harvesting from our three hives for the last 5 weeks and have collected almost 20 gallons of honey! The really amazing thing is that our little backyard Langstroth is kicking the butts (honey volume-wise)of the two hives we keep at a local garden center. We have wild blackberries and fennel to thank for their success, both of which are blooming like crazy in the creek behind our house. And both of which are quite delicious themselves, I might add! We've been eating blackberries on our cereal in the morning and making tarts and scones. Fennel is super delicious too, but I haven't quite figured out how to harvest it or use it. Another project in the making. I like that the blackberries help the bees, and the bees help the blackberries, and the whole fabulous cycle gives humans extra delicious things to eat. Definitely a win-win-win situation.

We use the crush and strain method of harvesting. Basically, you have two five-gallon buckets. One on the bottom, with has a big hole cut out of its lid and a spout at the bottom; and one on top, which has lots of holes drilled in the bottom and a nylon sieve inside. We crush up the honeycomb until we have a thick and lumpy honeycomb/honey soup. Then we pour the soup into the top bucket, where the honey separates, trickles through the sieve and top bucket and collects in the bottom bucket, where we can open the spout and fill bottles of honey.

Once the honey drains from the wax, we remove the wax and render it, pouring it into 1-quart paper milk cartons. When in cools, we remove the milk carton to reveal these gorgeous, light yellow, wax pillars that smell like honey. We wrapped them up and put them in a cardboard box to be made into candles or quilter's wax at some point. But we can't leave them alone. Every time someone comes over we have to take them out and make everyone smell them and say that they are wonderful!

We have sold several bottles of honey to friends and colleagues, and we're working out the details of getting honey on the shelves of the garden center, where two of our hives are housed. The garden center folks are super excited to have honey from their very own grounds, and so are we!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bee Date II

Today a few of my colleagues and their children joined me and Tim for our second bee date! This all got started last year, when I invited a few of my friends, who are super enthusiastic and interested in bees, over to see the hive. That day, we opened up the TBH hive, showed everyone what the brood looked like and then tasted some honey that I had previously harvested. We talked a lot about the different types of honeybees (queen, drone, worker) and how important they are to keeping food on our plates.

This year, we talked some more about bees and then harvested a comb of honey. We tasted the honey, and each family poured themselves a jar of it from our crush n' strain rig. Both bee dates have reminded me of how smart and curious kids are about nature. In fact, bees seem to bring out the bio-geek in most people. I could talk about bees until the cows come home, and usually I stop myself because I don't want to bore people. I'm constantly amazed when they continue to ask questions! It's really fantastic.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Live from New Orleans!

Tim and I are visiting New Orleans. I came for work, and then we stayed a few extra days to see what we could see. We took a trip along the Mississippi today, stopping along the way to see the old plantation houses that have finally been given up by private owners to become tourist attractions. Most of the way, we just took a peak at the houses from the road--it is ungodly hot and humid here--but twice we stopped and had a closer look around. One of the houses we stopped at was called Houmas, and we got a little bee surprise there.

Among the sugar cane fields and oil refineries we passed, there seemed to be plenty of open space where bee hives would thrive, but we hadn't seen any, which made us curious. Then, we entered the Houmas plantation gift shop, and saw quart-sized jars of Houmas honey for sale! As we walked through the gorgeous grounds (they had a water feature with gigantic three-foot-wide lilly pads!), we eventually found a gardener and asked where the honey came from. He said that the hives were on the grounds a little way off, but that there was another hive right on the front lawn. Puzzled that we couldn't see any bee boxes, we followed our guide onto the lawn where he led us right up to a huge live oak that had a big knot about ten feet up that was crawling with bees! The gardener said that the colony had been there about 10 years and that it swarmed from time to time. VERY exciting to know that there are feral bees doing so well in the world!

The gardener told us a story about the bees getting into the walls of one of the outbuildings and filling its 16-foot long walls with honeycomb. When they knocked that building down, they found enormous combs full of honey! On leaving the estate, we noticed about 25 Langstroth hive boxes a few acres away from the main house. We haven't figured out if the bees down here are Africanized. The ones we saw at Houmas plantation seemed gentle enough. But then I'm not sure if even bees could get too fired up in this hot, sticky Louisiana weather!

Houmas Plantation, Louisiana

Very kind gardener who took the time to show us the resident bee hive.

Bee hive in a live oak at Houmas Plantation.

Bee hive close up

HUGE lilly pads!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Cholla Ecosystem and More about Cactus Bees

The Cactus bees finally showed up around 10:00 this morning, and I enjoyed watching them go straight to work. I was very curious to see if the little bee that curled up inside of the flower yesterday was still there, but that flower closed into a tight little bud, and I don't think I can get a view inside of it without destroying it and/or hurting the bee. Maybe it will open a little later today.

Waiting around the cactus for the bees to show up gave me an opportunity to observe the other wildlife that the cholla supports. I have come to think of the cholla as a dessert version of a coral reef! Every time I move, there are little rustling sounds as lizards run for cover under the cholla's spiky branches. There are several different spiders who have virtually covered the whole plant with webs. The cactus bees are incredibly adept at avoiding the webs. Yesterday Tim noticed a beautiful, brown dragonfly hanging out near by, and most of the cholla's magenta flowers have at least two resident ants who like to harass the bees when they visit. I mentioned yesterday that there were two types of bees that visit the cactus. Today I began to wonder if they were different subspecies of cactus bees.

One cactus bee
A second type of cactus bee? Notice it's furrier than the first one and brown.
Another view of the second cactus bee

A spider hoping for a meal

An unfortunate snail. A cactus really seems like the wrong neighborhood for such a soft creature.
I have SO many questions...where do the bees live? What do they eat when the cholla isn't in bloom? How many chollas can there possibly be in Livermore? How far do the bees fly to find them? How closely are cactus bees related to honey bees? Do cactus bees visit other types of flowers? Do my honeybees visit the cholla cactus? (I haven't seen any honeybees there). Are the two cactus bee 'subspecies' really different bees? Or is one male and the other female? Lots to discover!


This morning around 9:00, I went out to see if the cactus bees were up. They were not--they seem to be late risers. In fact the flowers on the cactus had not yet opened. I went home and had some breakfast, and then I went out again around 9:30. Still no bees, and for something to do while I waited for them to show up, I decided to try and take a segment of the cactus home to grow in my yard.

Now, you might be thinking, does everything this girl does have to include the possibility of getting stuck with a barbed spike? However, that did not occur to me until I dropped the cactus segment on my toe and learned that getting stuck by a cholla cactus quill is about 10 times more painful than being stung by a bee. And the quill is even harder to remove than a stinger. I had to pull really hard to get the biggest of the quills out and then my toe just gushed with blood (gush might be an exaggeration, but it was a lot more blood than I expected)! Like a bee's stinger, the cholla's quills are barbed, making them a bit of an ordeal to remove. In the final analysis, I am quite happy to study the cactus bees on the neighbor's cholla. I don't need one in my back yard!

My right baby toe after being stuck by a cactus quill.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Cactus bees and other fun stuff

I took a walk along the creek behind our house today, and on my way home, I stopped to look at an overgrown cactus with beautiful, magenta flowers. Always hoping to spot one of my bees having a good meal, I was drawn to the plant and soon noticed several frantic bees zipping around. On closer inspection, I noticed that the bees, although a similar overall size to honeybees, had a slightly flat abdomen, with pronounced white and brown stripes. And boy were they good pollinators! I watched a bee nuzzle its way into the flower's plentiful stamens and quickly pass pollen from its front legs to the huge pollen loads on its back legs. Before I knew it, the bee was onto the next flower. There was another, smaller bee on the scene, but for the most part the larger bees dominated, and I started to wonder if it was a plant-specific bee. I couldn't find it's exact match online, but I was satisfied to know that 'cactus bees' or Diadasia  ( do exist; they are solitary bees that live in the ground and eat the pollen and nectar of cacti. Who knew? When I went back to take the pictures below, I noticed one particularly fuzzy little bee go into a flower and stay there. I confess that I bugged her a little--I wanted to know what she was up to--and I was rewarded with a very sweet picture of her peeking out. I can't help wandering what she was up to. Just taking a rest? Would she sleep there through the night? Very mysterious. 

During my search to identify the cactus bee, I ran across a fantastic story about a UK grocery chain's PR campaign, which involves hanging bee hotels across England. Here's the story:

Our bees are doing great. We combined a couple of hives because they went queenless post-swarm. They are monster hives now, and we are hoping to get a honey harvest this year...finally!

Friday, May 13, 2011

There's a mite on my queen. Say what?

Today I was thinking about how many strange things I say now that I keep bees. And when we found a mite on the queen in our TBH, thinking about how funny an outsider might find the statement, 'there's a mite on my queen,' was the only thing that kept me calm. When Tim told me that the hive didn't seem to be doing so well generally, I came home at lunch to check things out. Sure enough--the hive really seemed to be languishing. Not as many bees as normal, not as much traffic in and out of the hive. I think some of this is pretty normal; there is always a lull when a new queen takes over. Many of the adult bees die off before the first of the new queen's workers emerge and build up numbers. But when I opened the hive, I found an unusual number of workers with deformed wings and saw several workers with mites on them. The final straw was noticing a mite on the queen. I actually believed that this couldn't happen. I thought that the workers would keep the queen mite-free at all costs. But I guess at some point, the bees lose the battle and they can't protect the queen. Now we are trying to figure out what the best thing is to do. Should we let the hive die and take their not-so-mite-resistant genes out of the gene pool? Should we treat them and try to save the hive? Should we re-queen and let the remaining bees contribute to a potentially healthy future hive? If we re-queened would the new queen just get attacked by mites too? I am constantly surprised at how much the well-being of our hives effects me emotionally. It really is disturbing to see such lovely, helpful creatures weakened and destroyed by parasites. I know it is all part of nature, but it's very sad. And it seems to have happened so quickly--before the hive swarmed 5 weeks ago, everything seemed to be going along swimmingly.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

You can go with this, or you can go with that

The virgin queen's mating flight has always struck me as a pretty risky proposition. There's this big, young, juicy insect upon whom the continuation of thousands of other insects depends, and she's going to leave the hive, fly far away--maybe more than a mile--find a bunch of mates and then return to the hive unharmed. You can just imagine how pleased a robin or blue jay would be to come across a queen on her mating flight, and I often wonder what percentage of queens actually make it back to the hive. Last year, only one of our seven hives went queenless. This year two of our hives went queenless, and it provided an opportunity to try a new beekeeping technique. With one of the hives, we simply combined it with a strong queen-right colony, and that seems to have worked out just fine. Here's the cool part...with the second hive, Tim gave them eggs from another colony, hoping that they would make a new queen. Sure enough, nine days after giving the hive a frame of brood with eggs, Tim looked in and found that the bees had made seven queen cells! We were so proud of A) correctly diagnosing a queenless hive and B) having such great results from the remedy we chose. But really the props have to go to the bees--aren't they just amazing?!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Caught in the Act

Today we opened the TBH to see how everyone was doing and to try and figure out next steps in our spring preparations. We have had two weeks of gorgeous spring-like weather, and everything is coming alive. A couple of weeks ago, I was just seeing the very first billowy blossoms on a few trees; today those same trees, and several of their neighbors, are in full bloom! I think we are still some time away from  the peak of bloomingness (<--not a real word), but it sure feels like spring.

The bees are getting into the act too. When we opened the hive today, we were actually able to watch the queen laying eggs! That's something I've never seen before, and I really didn't expect to pull a comb out into broad daylight and find the queen just going about her business. It was really incredible to see her go from cell to cell, inspect each one closely by putting her head in and then walk over the cell, put her abdomen in and presumably lay an egg.  Then later, we saw a new worker bee emerge from her capped cell. It was all happening in the TBH today!

The bees immediately put the new top bars into use by building beautiful new comb on them--the two that we added last week were each about 1/3 drawn out! They are also bringing in loads more nectar and pollen. Go bees, go!

This time, we introduced another top bar between bars 11 and 12 to open the brood nest even more. I can't wait to see what they get up to next week.

Unfortunately, the mite wars continue. We saw two bees with mites and a few wingless wonders. We're investigating ideas for treating them. Thanks to the reader who suggested powdered sugar. We will let you know what we finally decide to do and how it works.

Here are some videos of the action. It's best to go to full screen and increase the resolution from 360p to whatever your internet connection will allow....

Thursday, February 3, 2011

TBH Update

Tim and I took a look at the TBH a few weeks ago and then again about a week ago. They seem to be doing okay. We opened up the brood nest and added some empty top bars on our first inspection, in hopes that the bees would quickly make some comb and feel like they have lots of room to expand rather than swarm. We'll see how that goes. On more recent peeks into the hive, we've noted that the bees are indeed making comb on the new top bars.

These bees are pretty paranoid. They are forever building queen cells that they don't do anything with. I sometimes wonder if it is because of the queen's laissez faire laying style. She really is a sloppy layer, but she seems to make a truck-load of bees regardless. Maybe this keeps the bees on edge. All of the queen cells appear to be superscedure cells--at least they are located toward the top of the combs--and we didn't think that they were actually laying in them. But last week, as I observed the hive, I saw a rather long, white, partially developed pupa fall from the bottom of the hive onto the ground. It looked to me like the colony was yanking a queen before she was fully developed. Did they decide that they didn't need her after all? Was something wrong with her?  Hard to say.

While I was pulling weeds last week, I saw a couple of workers escort a wingless wonder from the hive. Looks like we're going to have to treat for Varroa soon. I haven't found a good technique for TBH hives though.

Livermore Starting to Bloom

Over the last two weeks, trees have begun to blossom. Our apricot in the backyard is still covered in tightly closed buds, but along the walking path, I saw an almond today, which was partially in bloom and two trees with delicate pink blossoms. One, which had just a few blossoms last week, was densely covered in delicate, pink blooms today. An almond, just around the corner was almost in full bloom. And the yellow puff ball tree on Livermore St. was fully blooming.

The first tree I noticed with blossoms on it this year was what I think is a fruitless mulberry tree. It has squat, broad green leaves and loads of small, white blossoms. We had one in our old backyard, and the first one I saw blooming this year was in a parking lot near Stoneridge mall. Other tress, without blossoms, are starting to throw out green shoots. Yet some trees are still completely bare and dormant. I think we're just a couple of weeks away from full bloom!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Old Switcheroo

Today was a balmy winter day with temps in the high sixties and little fluffy clouds drifting across the sky. How many people, or bees for that matter, are lucky enough to say that in the 'dead of winter?' In the Bay Area we are lucky with the weather, but it also means that we get an early spring and early swarms. So, we wanted to take advantage of the weather to make some swarm precautions. We checked out our hive at the local nursery to see how they were progressing and then decided to swap the bottom and top boxes. The bottom box was pretty much empty, and we wanted to encourage the bees to move up by letting them know that there was lots of empty comb up top just waiting to be filled with food and babies.

The colony seems to be doing pretty well overall. The mites have taken a toll, but we haven't seen any wingless wonders or nosema. We didn't feed either of our colonies this winter, which seems to have been a good move because both still have some small stores, which I think will get them through to spring. I've already started to see some blossoming trees here and there.

The queen in this colony has consistently been a good layer--the brood combs are absolutely solid with capped brood when she's laying, and the bees brought in a fair amount of honey last year when you consider their location for the majority of the nectar flow--they were up in the Fremont hills, where for most of the summer, they were surrounded for miles by dry grass and not much else. Now that the bees are at the nursery and have loads of drawn out comb from last year, I'm hoping that they will be really good producers. We will see.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Happy New Year

Today was a perfectly spring-like winter's day. Not a cloud in the sky, barely a breeze and a high of 67! We took advantage of the weather by doing an inspection of the TBH in hopes of preventing the insane swarming that we experienced last year. If we saw a crazy number of bees and loads of food, we were prepared to open the brood nest and add some empty frames.

We went through the whole hive, from one end to the other. At first, we didn't see much action. There was a lot of empty comb, and I found myself amazed that the bees had worked their way through so much pollen--the first five or six combs were literally jammed with pollen when we last looked in late fall. No more--those combs were pretty much empty except for a little bit of honey stored along the top.

Around the fifth frame, we started seeing some scattered brood, with little stores of honey at the top of the combs. We saw our lovely black queen on about the sixth comb. This particular queen has never been a very tidy layer, so scattered brood isn't a suprise. The next few combs were brood combs, with a little more brood than the previous ones but still pretty scattered. Then we got into the pantry in earnest. A few of the combs were maybe 1/4 full of capped honey.

Other observations:
  • There were a few drones. I'm not sure if it is normal for them to hang around through the winter or not, but there has been a small drone community around the TBH consistently. We have noticed the bees chucking out what I call 'half-baked' drones for a while now. They seem to be aborting them for some reason.  It's either that they don't want the mouths to feed with such meager stores or that they are infected with varroa mites. I suspect the latter.
  • There certainly are mites. They have fallen through the screened bottom board and onto a piece of cardboard underneath, and I've also seen them on a few of the workers. We can't seem to find a good way to treat the TBH for varroa though.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees and a thing called love

As our kind friends and followers keep telling us, we haven't posted a blog in a long time. Why, you ask? Well, our wedding recently took over our lives! We were married at our home on September 25th with our immediate family and close friends in attendance. The bees played an important role as you will see.  It was a fantastic day that we will always remember happily.
The bees and Tim co-produced our wedding favors!
Our good friend, Kari made this gorgeous cake with
bee and gold-leaf accents
It was so beautiful--we hated to cut it--but it was delicious
too, so I'm glad we did!
A gift of something new and something blue. There was
old and borrowed too, but not bee-themed!
My sisters created this incredibly cute bachelorette favor.
Honey-flavored candy filled the champagne flute.
There is a lot of talent among our friends. Adam and Emily
 made this lovely bee painting that they gave us as a wedding gift!

Sunday, August 22, 2010


We harvested two 'frames' of capped honey from the TBH about a week ago. It was medium colored and super sweet (tooth-ache sweet) with the distinct but subtle flavor of licorice. Everyone who tries it takes a taste, stops for a moment, gets this confused look on their face and then says, 'there's something different about this honey...I can't quite place it.' They either eventually realize it tastes like licorice, or when we tell them that's the flavor, they go 'yeah, that's it!' We harvested a couple of quarts.

And now I am rendering the wax. Hard work. I bought a crock pot yesterday ($7 at Saint Vincent De Paul. It's the cool, yellow old-school one my mom had.) and pitcher to use expressly for wax rendering. I'm starting with a double boiler, which will allow me to skim the melted wax off the top of a pot full of water and other gunk. The next step will be to re-melt the wax in my way-cool retro crock pot and then pour it through some paper towels to sift off the remaining gunk. This is hard work for just a few ounces of wax from several combs.

Word on the street is that you should only try rendering wax from cappings--the thin, pure-ish wax the bees use to cover the fully cured honey for storage. I think that's probably a better idea. But hey, we never do things the easy way, and it seems a real shame to throw out all of the honey comb.