Friday, February 25, 2011

If All Else Fails, Read Instructions

My first interaction with honey bees was in the summer of 1984. I was only 9 years old, but I remember the day vividly because it was the first time my dad inspected my grandfather's hives. Up to then, my grandfather was the only family member who fooled with bees, and after his death my father showed an interest in tending them.

Papa's bee suit consisted of a pair of dark grey coveralls, a drawstring veil, a mesh ventilated helmet and some work gloves. My dad was bigger than him, therefore, the only things that really fit were the gloves, helmet and veil. So the other parts of his make shift suit consisted of one of those heavy old school black coats with a big fur collar, work boots and a lot of duct tape. Whatever he lacked in knowledge about working a hive of bees, he made up for in fortitude as he stomped down toward "The Branch" (stream) where Papa's three hives were set up; the whole family watching with pride and anticipation.

About 20 minutes later, my father emerged from the right side of the tractor shed, staggering and flogging at bees who were feverishly attacking him. Many of them had managed to enter his veil, stinging him across his back and shoulders. Others had gotten into his boots and stung him severely on both of his ankles. All total, my mom counted 64 stings. There wasn't much doubt; Papa's Bees 1, Pop zero.

After he healed up, my dad bought several books on beekeeping. Among them were, The Hive and the Honey Bee, the bible of beekeeping, The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, and Walter T Kelley's classic, How to Keep Bees and Sell Honey.

Al Gore hadn't gotten around to inventing the internet in 1984, so in addition to books, my dad read two beekeeping magazines which are still popular today: American Bee Journal and Bee Culture. Within the pages of these books and periodicals, he learned, among other things, that bees do not respond well to dark colors or heavy fragrances. So his hulking furry black coat and Aramis didn't do much to keep things copacetic.



Bad Idea
Now a days, in addition to new and timeless classic books, DVD's and a handful of magazines there are online forums like Beemaster and Beesource, manufacturer's websites like Brushy Mountain, Mann Lake and Walter T Kelley (most of which have fan pages on Facebook), and countless blogs like The Backwards Beekeepers, John Pluta's Georgia Bees, Blakeney Bees and of course Buzzed and Confused ;). Then there's YouTube, Wikipedia and apiary websites...the list of resources available online goes on and on. Further, there are scores of state and local beekeeping associations full of knowledgeable folks willing and ready to share what they have learned. Yep, these days, you can just about enjoy the hobby of beekeeping vicariously without even so much as popping the top on a hive. But how much fun would that be?

So the moral of this story is to learn all you can before jumping in. Read, ask, listen and observe. Join an association. Read the forums. Buy some books. Follow some blogs. And when you feel comfortable, consider establishing a hive or two. You'll be glad you did.

Epilogue
In the years that followed, Papa's hives were washed away when the branch got out of its banks during a heavy storm, but my dad would end up learning quite a bit about how to keep honey bees; passing off a bit of his knowledge to me. He would go on to establish new hives at our home, where as a teen, I would carefully walk up on hot summer days and watch "beards" of bees hanging on the outside of the hive. And, as fate would have it, 14 years after my dad's woeful first inspection, I would find myself sitting alone eating breakfast in Schilletter dining hall at Clemson University with my nose buried in his tattered copy of How to Keep Bees and Sell Honey, biding my time until I had a job and a paycheck so I could get started on my own trials and tribulations with this curious and fascinating little insect.

TB

If you'd like to be notified of updates to this blog, please email me at beeswax@teezbees.com. I promise your email address will not be shared with anyone.

 If you're interested in learning more about beekeeping, join a local beekeepers association as well as your state's beekeepers association. Explore your state's master beekeeper program if they have one. The following links can get you started:

U.S. State Beekeeping Clubs


South Carolina
South Carolina Beekeepers Association
Local Beekeepers Associations in South Carolina
South Carolina Master Beekeeper Program

Georgia
Georgia Beekeepers Association
Local Beekeepers Associations in Georgia
Georgia Master Beekeeper Program

North Carolina
North Carolina State Beekeepers Association
Local Beekeepers Associations in North Carolina
North Carolina Master Beekeeper Program

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Fat Dumb and Happy

Drone - (drohn) - n. - 1. The male of the honey bee and other bees. 2. a remote control mechanism, as a radio controlled airplane or boat. 3. a parasitic loafer.

Have you ever known that good for nothing, lazy bum that just laid around all day watching Jerry Springer and gobbling up Oreos, only getting off his dead a** to harass his better half for a little action? Well, the drone is the beehive's version of this clown. A drone doesn't have a stinger. A drone has no job within the colony. He doesn't gather nectar or pollen, nor does he make honey or help keep the hive clean. All he does inside the hive is eat. 


Delicious Honey- nom, nom, nom

A drone exists for one reason and one reason only...to mate, but mating does not occur inside the hive. Rather, in the afternoons, drones from many colonies fly to drone congregation areas to wait on virgin queens to show up to attempt to mate with; sort of like a honey bee version of a frat party. When a queen shows up, a frenzied chase begins in what is known as a mating flight where as many as 20 drones will successfully mate with a single queen. I guess her flight back to the hive could be called the "flight of shame".

Now, you  may think that laying around all day eating and then heading out for a night on the town to get with the ladies sounds pretty good; and I agree wholeheartedly. However, before you wish you could be a drone in your next life, you should know there are some drawbacks. First of all, every fall, the worker bees (who are all female by the way) in a necessary measure for winter survival of the colony, beat the hell out of the drones and throw them out of the hive where they starve to death. Sounds kind of like something from an episode of Cops doesn't it? Secondly, a drone can only successfully mate once, and it's not because he loses his mojo. Instead, after the "lucky" drone completes his mating ritual, his "equipment" is ripped from his body. Um...kinda harsh.

Despite only comprising around 1% of the hive's population, drones are pretty easy to recognize. For one, they are larger than worker bees; probably from all that honey they've been munching on. Also, they have big goofy eyes, which aid them in spotting queens during mating flights. Biologically, a drone will develop from an unfertilized egg and will emerge from it's cell 24 days after the egg is laid. From a honey production and hive management standpoint, drones are worthless. However, the existence of drones is beneficial for integrated pest management in combating the varroa mite, a parasitic mite that attacks honey bees. Varroa reproduce within the brood chamber of the hive, by laying their eggs on the bodies of developing bees. Varroa prefer developing drones because their developmental period is longer than that of worker bees (24 days vs 21 days). One way of attempting to control varroa is to purposely allow a frame of drones to be raised by using special beeswax foundation with drone sized cells (drone cells are larger). After the cells are capped during the final stage of the drone's development, the beekeeper removes the drone frame and freezes it. The drones are killed, but so are the mites.

And there you have it. The fat dumb and happy drone. Next time, I'll give you some insight into the queen bee.



If you'd like to be notified of updates to this blog, please email me at beeswax@teezbees.com. I promise your email address will not be shared with anyone.

 If you're interested in learning more about beekeeping, join a local beekeepers association as well as your state's beekeepers association. Explore your state's master beekeeper program if they have one. The following links can get you started:

U.S. State Beekeeping Clubs


South Carolina
South Carolina Beekeepers Association
Local Beekeepers Associations in South Carolina
South Carolina Master Beekeeper Program

Georgia
Georgia Beekeepers Association
Local Beekeepers Associations in Georgia
Georgia Master Beekeeper Program

North Carolina
North Carolina State Beekeepers Association
Local Beekeepers Associations in North Carolina
North Carolina Master Beekeeper Program

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Not To Wear

The other day, I was watching an episode of A&E's Billy the Exterminator. In this particular episode, Billy had been contacted about a colony of honey bees that had taken up residence in an exterior wall of a client's home. The client wanted the bees to be removed instead of being killed. In beekeeping terms, this is called a cut out and it's a much better idea than killing the bees.


Inside the client's home after the exterior siding was removed.
I'm obviously a proponent of saving all the honey bees we can, but even if you aren't, if you find yourself in this situation, the best thing to do is call your local agricultural extension and get the number for a beekeeper in your area that can do a cut out. If you think a can of wasp spray would be easier consider this: If there are bees inside a wall of your home, that means there is comb full of honey and brood. If you spray the bees, you will wind up either killing the colony or severely weakening it. Either way, this makes the hive susceptible to two honeybee pests you don't want to deal with: wax moths and small hive beetles. Wax moths are attracted to brood comb, and their larvae bore grooves into wood. This may not damage the integrity of your wall studs, but you'll be killing moths for a while. The bigger issue is small hive beetles, which lay their eggs in honey. The beetle larvae contaminate the honey and cause it to ferment, which causes it to liquefy and ooze out. Beekeepers refer to this as sliming due to the slimy pool of fermented honey that runs out of a beetle infested hive...not something you want inside your walls. So, like Billy's clients, have the hive removed. It'll be a lot less headache. Public service announcement complete. Back to the show.



Nicholas Cage called. He wants his Ghost Rider outfit back.

Based on Billy's appearance, he seems to be a nonconformist when it comes to fashion, often wearing leather pants and spiked accessories. His beekeeping suit was no different as he wrapped himself in a black leather chaps and a matching leather duster. Instead of a veil, he opted for a neoprene skeleton mask. Despite creating a sweltering environment, I suppose his suit provided decent protection from the neck down, but it didn't take long for Billy to realize his cute little mask didn't provide much protection as a bee crawled through one of the holes and stung him just below the eye, sending him screaming and pawing at his face like a Nancy.

If Billy had sought my reasonably priced counsel before taking a skill saw to his clients' home, I'd have told him that bees generally don't respond well to dark colors, so black leather wouldn't be the best choice. I may have shown him my Honey Maker suit from Mann Lake Ltd.


I don't do cut outs as of yet, but if I am working an aggressive hive, like the one I'm in front of in the video below, I wear this Buzz Lightyear get up. White nylon and veil, good. Black leather and Halloween mask, bad.


video

But despite looking dead sexy in my Honey Maker suit, I recently stopped wearing a suit for most of my inspections (Yes, I'm still clothed). I did this for two reasons: 1) It gets HOT in that thing. 2) I found that the bees tried to sting me less without the suit.

How did I come to test this theory? Well, I was watching a hive inspection during a beekeeping short course. At one point, the instructor, who wore only a veil and hat, scratched out a stinger and puffed some smoke on his elbow from his smoker. Someone asked him why he did that, and he explained that when a bee leaves her stinger in you, she leaves a pheromone behind that lets other bees where to sting you. I thought about this for a while and realized that my gloves and suit were full of stingers from previous inspections. Maybe they were full of this pheromone. Further, due to the bulky gloves I wore, I lacked tactility when manipulating the frames, causing me to further agitate the bees by accidentally mashing some of them. So maybe, I theorized, wearing the suit and gloves was actually encouraging them to sting me. So the next time I went into a hive, I wore only a hat and veil; no gloves, no suit. Long story short, the bees were much more gentle and I didn't get stung...at least not as much.  

veil and helmet setup similar to what I wear now


So am I saying don't wear a suit? Not at all. I am saying save the Halloween mask for trick or treat and don't ever wear leather chaps or matching dusters...EVER.



If you'd like to be notified of updates to this blog, please email me at beeswax@teezbees.com. I promise your email address will not be shared with anyone.

 If you're interested in learning more about beekeeping, join a local beekeepers association as well as your state's beekeepers association. Explore your state's master beekeeper program if they have one. The following links can get you started:

U.S. State Beekeeping Clubs


South Carolina
South Carolina Beekeepers Association
Local Beekeepers Associations in South Carolina
South Carolina Master Beekeeper Program

Georgia
Georgia Beekeepers Association
Local Beekeepers Associations in Georgia
Georgia Master Beekeeper Program

North Carolina
North Carolina State Beekeepers Association
Local Beekeepers Associations in North Carolina
North Carolina Master Beekeeper Program

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Worst $260 I Ever Spent


I've only bought 3 things off Craigslist in my life. Ranked from great to terrible they were: 1) a 1998 Dodge Ram Pickup 2) a microwave oven and 3) two beehives. Guess which one I'm going to talk about today.

It was late in the season when I noticed the ad. Fall was approaching and I wanted to enter the next spring with a couple more colonies. And since the apiaries had been sold out for several months, my options were limited. I called the seller and he agreed to sell me two colonies. Further, he lived close to my dad's house, which is where I intended to set up the hives. I got directions to his house and set up a time to meet. Things seemed to be falling into place.

When I found my way to the end of the long driveway, I immediately knew my run of good fortune was about to come to an end. I counted 8 cars and a box van. Not one vehicle looked to be in operating condition and they all appeared to have had their windows lowered for several years. Then there was the grass. If you ever wondered if fescue could grow over 4 feet high...it can. Fortunately, someone had mowed a haphazard path through a portion of the grass to make access to the house possible. I phoned the owner in the hope that I'd come to the wrong house. Unfortunately, his directions were spot on and I was in the "right" place. And to make matters worse, he was less than a minute away, so there wasn't much chance for an escape.

After the seller wasted about an hour shoe horning himself into an ill fitting bee suit and making some entrance guards out of cardboard and mesh, we proceeded to his bee yard. I asked him if he'd forgotten to bring his smoker and he informed me that he didn't like smokers as if using smoke was some kind blemish on the practice of traditional beekeeping. I'd have taken the time to tell him that wall paintings dating back to 1450 B.C. depict ancient Egyptians using smoke to drive bees away for the purpose of harvesting honey, but it was already getting dark and I wasn't in the mood to argue.  I assumed that he had already prepared the hives he was going to sell me, and all we had to do was attach the entrance guards and move them to my truck. And since darkness was all but upon us, meaning all the foragers had returned to the hives, colony strength would be very strong. For a brief moment, I thought my luck was starting to turn. I was wrong.

When we got to the bee yard, flashlights were already needed. I shined the light around and all I could see were large established hives 4-5 boxes high. I wondered where the 10 frame brood boxes I had come to purchase were. In a "gee, I must be blind" manner, I asked where the hives he was going to sell me were located, hoping they were right under my nose and I just wasn't seeing them. He told me he was going to split them off of two of the larger hives. A split is when you take frames of bees, brood, honey and pollen from one colony and put them in an empty hive body. After a few days, the worker bees will realize they have no queen and set about raising a new queen. You can also introduce a new queen yourself. Now that's all fine and dandy, but I wasn't standing in the dark holding a flashlight and a hive tool with this moron so I could watch him create a twilight colony split. So I asked rhetorically if he intended to sell me a hive without a queen. "Of course not" he said, "I wouldn't sell you a hive without a queen". Um...yeah ya would. But more on that later.

He dove right in, dismantling the first hive, then the second. Bees, who I mentioned earlier had all returned from the field, were boiling out everywhere. And since "the naturalist" was averse to using smoke, there wasn't anything to discourage the bees from an all out assault on both of us. Although not for lack of trying, the angry bees weren't having much success in getting any stings in me. I shined the flashlight like a pro back and forth between frames and tools wishing he would work a little faster as I was beginning to get covered up. It's hard enough to locate the queen in broad daylight, and damn near impossible in the dark, flashlight or not. So his method was to locate an area where fresh eggs had been laid and decree that the queen must be on that frame. After a traumatizing half hour, which seemed like 3 times as long, I strapped down the two new "hives" in the bed of my truck. All I had to do was settle up and get the hell out of there. I took my gloves off so I could get my keys to unlock my truck where my wallet was safely locked. However, I failed to realize that 10 or 12 bees had entered my pocket in the hopes of finding a tender spot to sting me. Suffice it to say that they weren't very pleased with me when I jammed my hand in amongst them. I let out a yell and yanked my hand out of my pocket to find no less than 5 of them in a firm grip on my fingers, stinging in unison. I feverishly shook my hand to get them off and scratched out the stingers. My hand was already throbbing as I counted out thirteen $20 bills. He bid me farewell and I promised myself if I ever saw him again, I was going to punch him in the ear so hard that he wouldn't be able to hear for a month.

I was still covered in bees, so I kept my veil on as I sped down the back roads toward my father's house. I looked at the clock and it was almost 10pm. I phoned my dad and gave him a brief heads up in a conversation that pretty much consisted of the phrase, "I seriously don't want to talk about it right now". I managed to hurriedly place the hives in the bee yard and went home to pour some moderately priced scotch on my nerves.

The next day, I went out to see how things looked in the daylight. Despite the bumbling fashion in which the transaction went down, I was hopeful that, in the end, I'd gotten what I wanted. I went into the first hive and started searching for the queen. The good news was, I found her on the bottom board. The bad news was that she appeared to be the wrong queen. I'd later find that apparently, the genius had mixed up some frames during the split and the queen had been attacked as an intruder as she was lying in an insect fetal position twitching as two worker bees were nudging her. I hoped I had inadvertently rolled her during my inspection, and maybe she'd be ok in a few minutes, so I'd turn my attention to the other hive. My hopes were dashed in a few minutes when I noticed that the worker bees had pushed her out of the hive and onto the concrete pad just before I accidentally stepped on her. Yeah, she wasn't getting back up from that one. I began inspecting the other hive, again, looking for the queen, but was unable to locate her. However, not knowing the apparent mix up, I was hopeful that I had just been unable to locate her and she was indeed inside.


A frame from one of my other hives. The big girl with the blue dot is the queen.


The first hive I inspected was pretty weak and didn't have many bees. Plus, I'd already squashed their queen, so I decided to combine the two hives by stacking the hive bodies on top of each other with a piece of ventilated newspaper between them. This is an old method that I've used before with success, and I figured this would give me at least one strong hive while I figured out my queen situation. I gave them a couple of days and went back for another inspection. When I opened the hive, most of the bees in the upper hive body had absconded and the rest were dead. Further, the frames had been overrun with small hive beetle larvae. The newspaper should have been chewed away, but fortunately, it was still intact, which had kept the beetle larvae from getting to the hive body below. I immediately trashed the upper hive and inspected the lower. Any hope that I'd missed finding the queen was eliminated by the existence of several queen cells.

Queen Cell from the Craigslist disaster

I ended up letting the bees raise a new queen rather than trying to order a new one. Above is a picture of this very hive and the queen cell from which the hive's new queen would later emerge. In the weeks that came, I began feeding the colony non stop and later found the new queen had emerged, left the hive to mate and managed to find her way back. We're now half way through winter and the little colony seems to be making it through. In the end, I learned a valuable lesson about buying bees, but I was also reminded how the instincts of the honey bee trump man's intervention when it comes to colony survival. We truly need them more than they need us.

Until next time...



If you'd like to be notified of updates to my blog, please email me at beeswax@teezbees.com. I promise your email address will not be shared with anyone.


If you'd like to learn more about beekeeping, join a local beekeepers association as well as your state's beekeepers association. Explore your state's master beekeeper program if they have one. If you live in South Carolina, the following links can get you started:


South Carolina Beekeepers Association
Local Beekeepers Associations in South Carolina
South Carolina Master Beekeeper Program