Swarm Saga, Pt. 2 (Mission Accomplished...Not!)

Yep, me and Karen were feeling pretty damn proud of ourselves after ketchin' that swarm....(Man's dominion over nature, etc.)

I was riding on an abundance of post-swarm endorphins, happy to find that my left leg had finally stopped shaking, feeling very King Bee.Karen was fine-tuning her "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" Beek-in-Flight moves.
Yet all was not entirely rosy. At least half the swarm appeared to have re-clustered in the sumac from which only hours before we had so painstakingly and incompetently removed them. (And here, I mean the royal we, since Karen bears no responsibility for any of this insanity.)

OK, so all those bees that landed on my suit and on the ground and in the air—plus any of the scout bees that were off premises looking for a good home far, far away from Gerry Gomez Pearlberg during Swarm-catching Attempt #1—all of these bees were now back on their branch, perhaps with the all-important queen, without whom the colony is doomed. Sigh. It was fun the first time, so why not do it all again? I felt terrible, but the colony had to be united. A bee colony is a superorganism whose survival depends on the sum of the parts.

In a painful case of deja vu all over again, the Brother fax box was brought back out from the shed and placed under the sumac in which this most unfortunate honeybee clan had cast its lot. This time, we clipped the branch on which they rested and gently laid it in the Brother box. The bees were pretty calm this time; too blue to protest, I guess. Or perhaps they appreciated the gentle treatment.
We placed the Brother box directly in front of the Office Max Recycled Copy Paper box, in the hope that a happy reunion would ensue.
The Brother box contained a rather astonishing number of bees. It was amazing that I could have missed or misplaced so many of them in the initial swarm-catching effort. Learning Curve Alert #79!

I had a funny feeling the queen was in the Brother box...in which case, everyone would probably leave the Office Max box and go into the much more exposed (and vulnerable) Brother box to rejoin their hive mother (who, in a Chinatown-like twist, is also their sister...but let's not go there at this time).

We decided to give it overnight and see what the bees decided to do. But before departing, I posed proudly by the box. I really need to stop doing that—it's bad beekeeping luck!

Because as you see, we still hadn't accomplished our mission! (Yes, it's political allegory, all right.)

This last group was easy to grab, and we added it to the Brother box and left the bees to their own devices.

But first, one last pose with the honeybee popsicle.

To be continued...


Swarm Saga, Pt. 1 (I Take A Notion)

This is the story of how not to hive a swarm of bees.

Last week, on the Summer Solstice, the bees from both Hive Orange and Green Hive took to the road. One swarm left without saying goodbye, but I was lucky enough to get to see the other swarm take to the skies with a collective roar before landing in a small sumac in the bee yard.
The sumac was a temporary home for the bees whilst scouts went out in search of a better home—a nice, hollow tree or some other suitable spot to set up shop.

Seeing the swarming process was a thrill. Once settled in the tree, the bees became so quiet you wouldn't even know they were there. An astonishingly powerful force of nature, yet so vulnerable and humble.

Initially, my intention was simply to let them go their way and lend their numbers to the feral honeybee population. Several factors, including the bees' relatively accessible location, soon shifted my thinking toward the idea of trying to capture the swarm. I'd already ordered an extra hive body from my top bar hive supplier, though it hadn't yet arrived. That wasn't ideal, but with the new hive winging its way through the US postal system, I expected it in a matter of days. The notion of catching and keeping the bees in a temporary setup seemed to take on a life of its own. "Why not try it?" my local beekeeper said when I called to ask his advice, sealing my fate.

Somehow, catching a swarm seemed the next logical step in the beekeeping adventure. Plus, it sounds so damn cool: catching a swarm. Let's face it, in spite of all my deep ecology philosophizing, I share that horrible human urge to tinker with natural processes better left to their own devices.

By later that evening, I'd begun to think it might be possible to make it work. My intrepid friend Karen was visiting for the weekend and seemed game for the adventure. She took the shots below.

First thing the next morning (4 a.m., actually), Amateur Hour Carpentry had re-opened for business and there was duct tape, screen mesh (for ventilation), and corrugated cardboard everywhere. We built a temporary holding box for the bees and prepared to capture them. (The advice I'd received was to temporarily house the bees in a cardboard box with a separate, fitted lid—like the kind office paper comes in. But I didn't have one of those boxes and didn't want the swarm to up and disappear, so we created this initial holding pen out of an old fax machine package. Why catch a swarm of bees in just one step, when you can do it in three?!)

The calm euphoria before the decidedly non-euphoric storm. As you can see, the cluster was very quiet and subdued—no problem getting close without protective gear...so long as you don't bother them.

Spraying the cluster with sugar water to calm them before seriously bothering them.
The open box was placed under the cluster, the branch on which they'd gathered was inelegantly shaken, and bees fell by the hundreds into the box—and on my suit, and on the ground. By this time, there were many bees flying around in a rage—or was it a feeling of fear and betrayal?
The box of bees was closed...

The bee-brush Samba—an attempt to remove some of the bees trying to sting me through my jeans. Who could blame them?

Back in the shed, my bee suit removed, I have a delayed reaction to the self-inflicted trauma of being surrounded by thousands of flipped-out bees and decide that there's a bee on my neck that wants to kill me. I freak, but Karen assures me it's just a bit of torn cloth from my bandanna. She takes this picture to prove it, but for an hour or so I have paranoid delusions of bees crawling on me.

We rush to Office Max and buy a ream of paper in order to acquire the proper type of box. A minor drama ensues regarding the location of the recycled office paper (why do they make it hard to find that?!). Another small drama ensues about the time it takes to check out (forever!), though we are the only people in the cavernous store in a ghost-town of a mall for which acres of pasture were paved (and people wonder why all the pollinators are disappearing).

Finally, we're out of there and back to Amateur Hour Carpentry so the box can be screened for ventilation and entrance holes drilled to allow the bees to come and go (and forage) while we wait for the real hive to appear.

The bees are transferred into the new box.

And the box is placed on the same stand where the real hive will be located. Bees have very sensitive navigation equipment and would have trouble making the transition to the real hive if the location was suddenly changed.

Mission accomplished, we're feeling pretty good. Karen gives the bees some sugar water to cool them off and rejuvenate them a bit. We're both relieved that, after two transfers, the bees are now set up and can relax in their temp home. We're Swarm Catchers, and we're feelin' mighty fine!

Except for this....

To be continued....


Murmuring Queens

Yesterday, I heard the queens in Hive Orange piping. It sounds a bit like singing whales, but eerier—an amazing, insistent cry audible even before I opened the hive. Very Diamanda Galas!

One of these queens will become the new mother of the colony, replacing the queen who departed with the Hive Orange swarm sometime last week.

Check out the sound of a piping queen or these other insect sounds.

And then there were three...

Last evening at dusk I was able to place the swarm in its new home. I've affectionately named this third hive Rebel Rebel, but a more apt name might be Patience of a Saint. They really did go through a lot with me (Learning Curve Alert!) and I hope things work out for them now.


They Call Me Swarm-Catcher!

Not a very good swarm-catcher, but a swarm-catcher nonetheless. (Not sure if I succeeded in catching them, or simply waylaying them en route to bigger and better things.)

I just might be eligible for the Least Elegant Swarm-Catching In Beekeeping History Award and will confess all the inglorious details soon. On the other hand, I have experienced the exhilarating terror and fascination of the swarm-catching adventure. It was Sensurround x 25,000+---the approximate number of bees (and I am being conservative here) I managed to provoke out of a peaceful, silent, minding-its-own-beeswax swarm.

The photos below were taken by my intrepid pal, Karen, who worked with me throughout the whole process and did some great documenting. Below, you see me spraying a little sugar syrup on the outer part of the cluster to calm the bees down a bit before startling the living hell out of them by violently shaking the branch they were so happily resting on into a large box awaiting them below.

Moments later, their peace disrupted, I found myself enveloped in a torrential rainfall of bees. Many landed in the box as planned; many more wound up in the air and, as you can see, madly tried to dissuade me from my folly. It was frightening, but also transcendent to stand inside a force of nature in a well-made beek suit. I must also take my hat off to my cheaply made Old Navy bluejeans which protected me remarkably well from the justifiably defensive onslaught.

That thing covered with bees on the right side of this shot? That would be my arm.
Yes, I wound up with a few minor stings—and honestly, it was good to get that over with, because I'm not nearly as nervous about getting stung now. Also, I have learned that the real problem with bee stings is less the pain of the sting than the murderous itch that reminds you for days on end not to hassle bees. Actually, given how obnoxious my incursions were, I think the bees went easy on me and once again showed their essentially nonviolent temperament.


A First Day of Summer I Will Never Forget

Awe: an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.
They did it! They swarmed! And (props & gratitude to the minor gods), I saw it all, got lots of photos, captured (I think) some pretty good video, and got to experience the mind-altering thrill of standing in the heart of Nature's big Om.


This just in...


The Onion

Endangered Species List Edited To Fit Poster

WASHINGTON, DC—World Wildlife Fund president Carter S. Roberts said Monday that his organization was forced to pare down the list of...

What the Bobwhite Means to You

I'd like to recommend Verlyn Klinkenborg's excellent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times about our vanishing wildlife and its implications for us all. Here's a taste:

In our everyday economic behavior, we seem determined to discover whether we can live alone on earth. E.O. Wilson has argued eloquently and persuasively that we cannot, that who we are depends as much on the richness and diversity of the biological life around us as it does on any inherent quality in our genes. Environmentalists of every stripe argue that we must somehow begin to correlate our economic behavior — by which I mean every aspect of it: production, consumption, habitation — with the welfare of other species.

This is the premise of sustainability. But the very foundation of our economic interests is self-interest, and in the survival of other species we see way too little self to care.

The trouble with humans is that even the smallest changes in our behavior require an epiphany. And yet compared to the fixity of other species, the narrowness of their habitats, the strictness of their diets, the precision of the niches they occupy, we are flexibility itself.

We look around us, expecting the rest of the world’s occupants to adapt to the changes that we have caused, when, in fact, we have the right to expect adaptation only from ourselves.


We're Throwing a Swarm!

The verdict is in...Hive Orange is fixin' to swarm, as indicated by this swarm cell and several others.
I now have the following options:

(1) Let 'em swarm (send them out into the world or perhaps try to catch the swarm and house it in a new hive); or

(2) Divide the colony in half now (a.k.a. do a split) and house half the colony in a new hive.

(3) Hide my head under a pillow and pretend none of this is happening.

(4) Start getting psyched, because I'm going to see my first-ever honeybee swarm!!

Honestly, though, this is a lot more excitement than I was planning on this summer. My intentions were bucolic and exceedingly unambitious: a taste of honey; some low-key time spent "in the bees," as the beeks say; and pleasant hours whiled away idly watching the pretty bees collect pretty pollen from pretty flowers.

The landscape is shifting quickly here—and the bees are running the show. Which is OK by me....I think... My lofty principles about letting bees be bees are being challenged by the very bees I'm supposed to be letting be bees! So I'm meditating heavily on a passage I found the other evening:

"How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us."—from A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit
A very short time ago, we hived a couple of packages of bees who buzzed in a most demoralized fashion for weeks, until the snow and cold let up, the flowers bloomed, and the buzz turned focused and robust. I worried about them like crazy and prayed to every minor god I could think of that they'd thrive. Eight weeks later, we have two happy, healthy colonies with tons of bees. Words simply cannot convey how many bees! Just to help you envision this, here are some before and after images.

Typical level of activity at the entrances in mid-May...
Typical level of activity at entrances (plus bearding along the upper face of the hive body) in mid-June.
In May, as the bees were getting started and at the very first phases of building up their population, a typical comb was relatively small and barely covered by worker bees.
Now, we have many combs drawn across the length of the top bars, stuffed full of pollen, brood, honey and yes, swarm cells!

With summer just getting started and the queen laying a couple thousand eggs a day, there's no end in sight. A full, crowded hive is a good sign—just what I'd wished for. Thank you, minor gods!

So though the word "swarm" is a scary word, I'm going to try to face this with beek-like equanimity. It helps that just moments ago, one of my online mentors wrote to say, "You will love [the sight of the bees swarming], it's a beautiful thing to see."


A Drone (And Mystery) is Born

Today we inspected Hive Orange from top to bottom, since I'd noticed some oddly shaped cells through the observation window and was concerned that we might be heading for a swarm. It was our first time using the new top bar holder I'd assembled in the tradition of Dada on Friday. This contraption is super-handy and made today's inspection (and photo shoot) very easy.

Our visit to the hive brought a few interesting surprises. We saw several drones entering the world by chewing their way out of their capped cells. We saw a bees carry a dead bee out of the hive (just picked her up and flew off with her—an image evocative of the flying monkey whisking Toto away.) And we saw the bees attack a hapless fly that wandered into the hive.

We also found seven of these unusually shaped cells, a possible sign that the colony intends to swarm.
Swarming is a natural thing for the bees—that's how they divide their colonies and reproduce in the wild. It's also how they cope when the population outgrows the space inside the hive. Basically, they raise several new queens in these special cells. Whichever queen emerges first goes around and kills off the other queens while they're still in their cells. Meanwhile, once the new queen emerges, the old queen takes off with a portion of the colony to find a new home, leaving the new queen with the remainder of the colony.

I don't mind in the least if our bees swarm once the colony is strong and established (i.e., next spring). But I'm a little concerned that since this colony was hived 8 weeks ago and is just getting underway, having half the population jump ship might leave the rest under-staffed in terms of gathering enough food and building to appropriate population size going into winter.

We found a total of seven of these cells. The thing is, they may be swarm cells...or something called "queen cups," which apparently don't present any risk of swarming at all.

To my untrained eyes, the difference is unclear. Therefore, the implications of all this excitement are as yet unknown. I've posted a query to my Top Bar Hive discussion group and am hoping they can solve the mystery. Stay tuned....


Amateur Hour Carpentry (The Spirit of Duchamp)

Amateur Hour Carpentry, LLC was open for business yesterday, when a burst of energy sent me on a sawing-drilling-wire-cutting frenzy in pursuit of my very own top bar holder.

When you're inspecting the combs, it's nice to have a way to briefly secure each top bar outside the hive, so you can see what's going on and, if necessary, perform "management tasks" like cutting off comb that's adhering to the edges of the hive or culling drone comb (an organic management option for reducing populations of the dreaded Varroa destructor mite, a honeybee parasite and disease vector). (You gotta love these Latin names—they don't mess around.)

Also, the combs get kind of heavy when they're filled with honey and brood, so if you're working on your own with the hives, a top bar holder comes in handy.

The nice people on my Top Bar Hive discussion group suggested various approaches for fashioning a top bar holder and I have seen some handsome ones during searches on the web. But having zero carpentry skills (and way too many tools), I went for the super-easy design in Phil Chandler's neat little book, The Barefoot Beekeeper, available as a free download. All you need are a few pieces of scrap wood, two heavy-gauge coat hangers, and the will to fail where others have succeeded.

The result is something along the lines of a Duchamp Readymade, no?
Disclosure: Phil Chandler's version is a lot more elegant than mine, but hey, Amateur Hour Carpentry, LLC always lives up to its name!


On Brains, Beauty, and the Spirit of the Hive

"What is this 'spirit of the hive'--where does it reside?"

In his poetic, philosophically rich treatise on honeybees, The Life of the Bee, Maurice Maeterlinck asked this question regarding the mystery whereby 60,000+ honeybees in a colony carry out innumerable tasks in a highly effective, coordinated manner; locate and share data on the ever-shifting array of available nectar sources; decide when to swarm or supercede an old queen; coordinate defense of their colony; and, through countless incremental acts of cooperation, specialization, and communication, achieve the goals of reproduction and survival.

Watching the colony from the human-outside, one begins to suspect that the underpinning of this ameobic mind-body-spirit is a vast communication network that makes the Internet look quaint and the Psychic Hotline look like Amateur Hour.

Maeterlinck was grappling with these questions in 1901, and pretty much everyone who has written about honeybees before or since has wound up doing the same. It's impossible to watch a colony in action without perceiving a deeply complex mind at work. And, as humans entranced with power and hierarchy, it really messes with our heads to think of "queen" and "workers" without making all sorts of assumptions and projections about who's running the show in there.

Having been at this beekeeping thing for only a few weeks, I don't pretend to have the faintest clue about what's going on in the hives. I am watching the bees, reading as much as I can about them, and savoring the mysteries they pose.

I was pleased to come upon the article below on honeybees behavior and colony dynamics this morning. It describes some interesting new research on honeybee behavior, plus a quick overview of honeybee basics like the "waggle dance."

Undergraduate research shows leaderless honeybee organizing from PhysOrg.com

Undergraduate education generally involves acquiring “received knowledge” – in other words, absorbing the past discoveries of scholars and scientists. But University of North Carolina at Charlotte senior biology major Andrew Pierce went beyond the textbooks and uncovered something previously unknown.[...]

Of course, the article contains the annoying (requisite) pronouncement that, "Bees do not have large brains and are not capable of complex thought like humans." To which I say, Their brains may be small, but they're still outwitting the scientists trying to figure them out!

It seems most every article about how "complex" or "intelligent" an animal is includes the comforting caveat that "they're not as smart as us"—because we humans are just SOOOO smart! (It makes us feel bad to consider the possibility that intelligence takes many forms and expressions that we, in our supremely limited way of seeing things, simply fail to appreciate, recognize, or understand.)

That's what I like about the honeybees—they make us look kind of dumb.


Spring Honey: an edible time machine owned, operated (and yes, patented) by a honeybee colony near you

Pop quiz: Which of these objects provides a shortcut through the time-space continuum?

The other day, while moving some of the top bars around to improve the ventilation in Hive Orange, I inadvertently dislodged a bite-sized piece of honeycomb and couldn’t resist the temptation. I carried the sweet dollop a few feet away on the tip of my hive tool, unzipped my head veil, and unceremoniously popped it in my mouth.

Still warm from the hive, the honeycomb’s flavor imploded on my palate, a chewy, exuberantly sweet detonation of spring. Reveling in the thrill of my first hot-off-the-press honeycomb, I had the following epiphany: Honey is a time machine.

This strange substance—a product of the honeybee’s physiology, labor, and skill—is a form of liquefied time, a distillation and preservation of this particular spring in this particular place, never to be repeated.

Spring honey is a unique composition based on the botanical realities within a three-mile radius of the hive, what the weather was up to, and where the bees’ own propensities guided them during nectar collection. For while the bees have well established seasonal foraging patterns—including visits to the springtime blossoms of dandelions, berry bushes, and fruit trees—it’s also clear that choices are made and preferences expressed.

For example, I’ve heard that honeybees “love” strawberry blossoms, but all week I’ve watched these bees choose the miniscule asparagus flowers over the incisive white blossoms in a good-sized strawberry patch. The only honeybee I’ve seen in the strawberry patch was there to gather water droplets from a strawberry leaf. It looks to me like the solitary bees and flies have been pollinating the strawberries with little or no support from their honeybee brethren.

In other words, honeybees aren’t automatons going for a set type of blossom at a set moment in time. Like the rest of us, they’re making choices based on a complex and mysterious amalgam of influences unbeknownst to us, such as scent, color, shape, curiosity, a lust for something new and different, aesthetics, mood, happenstance.

Why would the honeybees select the asparagus blossoms over the perfectly lovely strawberry flowers just a few yards away? The reason might be pedestrian, its mystery squelch-able by science (e.g., the asparagus nectar is flowing more, or more alluringly—or this particular strawberry cultivar is not to the bees’ liking).
But maybe there’s more to it than that: perhaps the bees prefer the shadier, sexier environment of the asparagus bed, whose branches crisscross in jungle-like effect of wild abandon. Or maybe the girls take pleasure in dangling from the tiny bell-shaped asparagus flowers—I know I would. Perhaps a wizened scout bee whose opinion they trust recommended the asparagus bed over the strawberry bed, and it’s a simple case of follow the leader. Or maybe I just heard wrong about the bees and the strawberries. To paraphrase that old-timely radio broadcast, Only the Shadow knows!

Whatever the bees' reasons may be, their creation—honey—offers us a chance to physically commune with a lost moment in time: warm, sunny days whose place-character and botanical psychodramas the bees have taken in and transformed. This is something human beings are incapable of creating. In spite of our technological prowess, honey—that simple, ubiquitous substance produced by honeybees alone—is, to us, as unfathomable and potent as a magical elixir.

When we eat spring honey, we’re tasting time.


Give Bees a Chance

Make two statements at once with this "give bees a chance" bumpersticker from the folks over at Beekgeek. Their bumperstickers, T-shirts, and other beeky products benefit the Puget Sound Beekeepers Assn.


Bloomin' Asparagus

There's no getting around it: talking about bees means talking about flowers. The asparagus blossoms have been getting lots of attention from the bees this week, both for the nectar and the pollen.