Beehives in snow

The Bee Carol

THE BEE CAROL
by Carol Ann Duffy

Silently on Christmas Eve,
the turn of midnight’s key;
all the garden locked in ice –
a silver frieze –
except the winter cluster of the bees.

Flightless now and shivering,
around their Queen they cling;
every bee a gift of heat;
she will not freeze
within the winter cluster of the bees.

Bring me for my Christmas gift
a single golden jar;
let me taste the sweetness there,
but honey leave
to feed the winter cluster of the bees.

Come with me on Christmas Eve
to see the silent hive –
trembling stars cloistered above –
and then believe,
bless the winter cluster of the bees.

Beehives in snow
Brazee Street Studios: Prairie Flowers and Honeybee Hives

Give Me the Wild Life

Brazee Street Studios: Prairie Flowers and Honeybee Hives

 

Reader, some of my bees are starving while other hives are packed with honey.

The difference is in the wildness. No…not in the wildness of the bees but in the wildness of where they forage.

The starving bees are located in suburbs and on big farms. Two locations which oddly enough actually have one big thing in common…they’re both boring. Boring to death. Sorry to say this.

If you and your neighbors love nice green grass, and if your grass is treated with herbicides and if the lawn-service truck routinely sprays and if you think clover and dandelions reflect that you’re a bad homeowner and if you keep all of your flower beds perfectly groomed and free of weeds, then the bees in your trees are probably starving. Because this is a sickly idea of beautiful. It’s not our fault. We bought into this idea that thin is beautiful. Not only when it comes to our bodies but also when it comes to our lawns and our lives.

I am getting off that stupid train. Hear me.

And those farms that grow one crop…say, soybeans or corn…and it hurts me to say this because I love corn so much…but that single crop is a bee killer. It’s not the crop that’s bad, it’s the singleness of it. Monoculture farming is unbelievably boring.

The bees in my care that are rolling in honey live in wild…and I mean WILD places. Some of these wild places were intentionally planted. Some of these wild places are intentionally managed to keep them natural. But some of these wild places are completely accidental.

Frankly, Reader, I think I’m about to go off the deep end into this wildness.

The bees doing best live near and forage in

  • Community gardens. These gardens are diverse and wonderfully wonderfully wonderful and there are weeds and wild flowers growing between bed and at the margins of the gardens. There is a thrilling energy in community gardens, and THIS IS WONDERFUL FOR BEES! Also, Reader, bees are wonderful for the gardens. This is the miracle of it.
  • County parks. These parks (such as California Woods Nature Preserve) have trails and managed meadows filled with wildflowers, and the bees revel in those meadows. REVEL! The meadows receive full sun and are unmown havens in which natural prairie flowers grow all season long. And the bees in these parks go like gangbusters. Thank God for spaces in which good park systems (such as the Hamilton County Parks) thoughtfully steward the land in their care.
  • Downtown. Because downtown is a wonderful mix…including some wild areas along the margins. People who live downtown don’t have grassy lawns and they don’t hire lawn services. People who live downtown have wild garden spaces. And vacant lots. In which community gardens sometimes pop up under the wonderful stewardship of people (such as Catherine Comello Stehlin) who care.
  • Urban neighborhoods. Take Oakley (near downtown Cincinnati), for example. Because some people such as Sandy Gross and John Hutton and their creative friends know that it’s best not to mow. So they plant wild prairie flowers and plan Monarch way stations. And they care how it looks, so it’s planned to be gorgeous and wild and save money and save the environment and save the bees and the butterflies. And it’s drop-dead gorgeous wherever these people are, so we should all do what they do. I plan to follow their examples.
  • Go to Brazee Street Studios…to the parking area behind the studios (on Enyart Street) and take a look. THAT, my friend, is beauty.

Reader, I am the steward of a one-acre yard. In a nice suburb. And it is almost all mown. And the bees that share this yard with me are begging me to change it. And I’ve learned to listen to both the bees and my gut…so I intend to allow some wildness into my yard and thus into my life. The bees in my care here are whispering to me that I’ve grown dull. And that it’s high time I strike out into something unpredictable.

 

 

 

 

Hope

Rearing queen bees requires balance. No, not the kind of balance it takes to walk a wire, but a kind of balance in the bees’ psyche. Yes, bees have psyches. Ask any good beekeeper…we can read the bees’ mood as soon as we open the hive box.

When rearing queens, our first step is to make the bees absolutely desperate for a new queen. Desperate. And yet, in order to rear high-quality, strong queens, our bees must also maintain a high level of enthusiasm. And that’s a tough balance to keep.

Hope is the key here. Only hope can bridge the crevice between desperation and enthusiasm.  Seriously…this stuff is too wonderful for words.

 

Bee Love 2013

The 2013 Bee Love Tee

Bee Love 2013
Bee Love T-shirt 2013

Introducing the Bee Love 2013 T-shirt. Designed by Jody Fritz Pieper. If you want one, contact me and I’ll get it to you. I wear it almost every day. Because it’s wonderful and feels good.

Bob poses (under duress) with his queen castle

Bob the Architect Saves the Day

One thing that’s really handy to have if you’re rearing queens is your very own wonderful certified sweet architect. Why? Because your architect can help you build these awesome 3-frame queen castles (also called “mating nucs”).

Once your queen cells are capped, you place the cell in a tiny little hive with a cup or two of bees and a frame of honey, and the bees tend the cell until the queen emerges, mates, and begins laying her eggs.

My friend Bob is my favorite architect. He’s also one of my favorite friends. He’s fun to hang out with. And Bob built these gorgeous queen castles. And if you need some, I’m sure he’ll sell them to you.

Bob poses (under duress) with his queen castle

 

The Accidental Queens

I’m here to report SUCCESS on the queen-rearing front.

I read the books, watched the videos, asked my questions on the beekeeping forums. I bought the little plastic queen-rearing cells, the queen-rearing frames, the little larvae-lifting device, the queen-rearing nucs, and the mating castle. But before I could even begin my actual experiment employing all those suggested gizmos, a queen-killing accident in my strongest hive resulted in a slew of drop-dead gorgeous queen cells. They were sublime…at the same time horrifying and thrilling beyond imagination. I harvested the cells. From which queens emerged and mated and began getting down to work laying eggs in breathtaking patterns.

That accident taught me a lot.

So, I am now rearing my queens without all those devices. No larva-scooping device. No fancy cells or frames. I am simply populating a 5-frame nuc with a very strong number of bees, giving it a frame of honey, a frame of pollen, and a frame of brood…and once it realizes it’s queenless (24 hours after I make the nuc), I give it a frame containing four-day old larva. I then wait seven days and harvest the queen cells and Viola!, within three weeks I have beautiful queens with developed ovarioles ready to get to work.

This whole experience reminds me of my bread-baking experiments a number of years ago. While many of my friends were getting all heady about their fancy bread-making machines, I began makign the best bread imaginable using only my hands and a wooden spoon. I don’t even use a bread pan. I simply toss my hand-formed loaf onto a baking sheet. Something deep within me wants to avoid gizmos.

All of this is to say, Reader: I now have a strong number of very beautiful queen bees who are laying in some drop-dead gorgeous patterns. It makes me dizzy to see the beauty. I’ve chosen my queens from swarms I collected early this season…and from my surviving stock. Which means that these queens embody strong Midwestern genetics and stand a chance of surviving our winters. And their offspring know how to forage our Midwestern flora.

If you need a queen, my friend, I’ve got her right here (as long as I can keep up with demand while still producing strong queens…I’m not a queen factory. I delight over every queen…which, for some reason, seems important). And I can get one of these sweet queens to you.

 

My first batch of queen cells

Facing my Fears: Time to Rear my own Queen Bees

My first batch of queen cells

Reader, I think I’m on to something around here.

Let me tell you what’s been brewing and what I’m doing about it.

As you probably already know, the honeybees are having a rough go of it these past years. People ask me everyday what factors I believe have continued to cause the overall decline of the honeybees—and I have my ideas, though I’ll share those with you in another post.

As a result of the honeybee decline, many of our managed Ohio hives died this past winter…I lost a high high high percentage of my hives. And when it comes time to replace those lost hives, lots of people purchase 3-pound packages of bees and a queen. These packages arrive in Ohio mid April from southern states…states that, because of their more temperate winter weather, can get a good jump on building their hives and queens for shipment earlier in the season. If we in the Midwest or in the North receive our bees from southern states, we can get our new hives established more quickly.

I’ve ordered many packages of bees these past few years…both for myself and for others who then purchase these bees from me. And I’m very grateful to our southern beekeepers who have continued to supply us.

However (and I am not complaining here), it would take a numbskull not to notice that these packaged bees and the queens that arrive with them limp along for a long time once we hive them. The queens often fail completely and immediately. Either the hive goes queenless or the colony very quickly supercedes the queen. So the hive either fails completely or it crawls along, using resources from our other hives in order to develop its new queen, and then waiting a month or so for that new queen to emerge, mate, and begin laying. Very few of these hives develop with the vigor we expect from a happy, healthy, robust colony. Honeybees are generally enthusiastic, friends…they don’t naturally drag around.

And then, after nurturing a slow, weak hive all season, the colony often simply gives up the ghost over the winter…which is all very frustrating and expensive. So what do we do? We then order another package the following spring. To me, this cycle feels more and more as if I’m chasing good money after bad. Over and over and over again.

This spring, more of my packages failed than ever. And I’ve decided not to climb back on that treadmill.

Fortunately, it’s tough to dampen hope. So rather than give it all up, I’ve become resourceful. This season, I’ve begun to rear my very own queens.

I’m convinced, Reader, that we Ohio beekeepers can rear our own healthy queens…proven queens from genetics that have already survived our Midwest winters…queens that can rear worker bees genetically adapted to forage midwestern flora. And if I rear my own queens, I will not churn them out for massive shipments…which means I can give the hives the resources necessary to rear strong and healthy queens. It’s all in the resources, folks…rearing queens requires strong bees, honey, and pollen…and a knowledgable beekeeper who is doggedly determined to run a sustainable operation. And that beekeeper happens to be me.