Praise of the Bees by Barberini Exultet Scroll circa 1087

Bee Season: I Am Ready, and Yet I Am Never Ready. Which Is Thrilling.

Praise of the Bees by Barberini Exultet Scroll circa 1087

 

Dear Reader, it is Easter time, and in Ohio this means the beginning of bee season.

The colonies that successfully overwintered in my bee yards are bursting at the seams. Which suggests to me that swarm season may come earlier than usual this year…I usually expect my first swarm call on Mothers Day. It’s one of the most exciting calls of the year, and all my nerves are alert for it. Which is why I love this “Praise of the Bees” image. Because it is in every way full on glorious bee.

In this image, beekeepers smoke a swarm and cut the branch on which it hangs. This swarm will then become a happy hive in the beekeeper’s yard. Bees fly in the air, and it seems to me that they’re all over the blooming trees and shrubs and flowers. Another beekeeper cuts comb from a suspended long hive, honey runs through a sieve, and his assistant collects the small amount of honey in a jar. (I like that this is a sustainable practice. They are not taking more than the bees can give and not more than the beekeepers can use.)

For several months each year, I’m this busy. I’m deliriously, exhaustedly busy and I’m happy with that. And who wouldn’t be? It’s so freaking exciting.

So, friends, if you happen to find a swarm hanging sweetly in a tree or on a bush or on a lamp post or wherever, please contact me. I’ll be delighted collect it. I might look tired and dirty when I see you, but I will be happy. And I think it will make you happy, too.

Murphy waits in the truck

Murphy and the Truck Draw a Crowd

Murphy waits in the truck

Murphy doesn’t love bees. But he loves to go. He loves to go in the truck and hang his head out the window. Today, when I stopped for an iced tea and left Murph waiting in the truck, a small crowd of women gathered around them. When I returned with my iced tea, they were all snapping pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Chlo sells pink lemonade

What I Learned at Chlo’s Lemonade Stand

You remember the Brazee bees, don’t you, Reader? According to Deb (and to me, and to everyone else we’ve let anywhere near any of the honey), the Brazee bees have produced the season’s most delicious honey. Bar none.

But this post isn’t necessarily about honey…it’s about last night’s “Bees and Beethoven at Brazee” Party of Note to benefit the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Sandy Gross, the owner and brain and heart and nerve behind the wonderful Brazee Street Studios asked me to share a little bit about honeybees with the party goers, and I was happy to do it. It was delightful…perhaps because we gathered outside in the Prairie area beneath a rising blue moon and we talked about bees. After that, we visited the two Brazee hives before watching JW May create a gorgeous honeybee in the new hot shop glass-blowing studio.

It was a sweet night…all the hor d’oeuvres were ever-so-slightly drizzled with honey produced by the Brazee bees; Sandy’s family and I dressed in yellow-and-black bee-appropriate attire; and I met some really nice new people. It wasn’t boring as so many parties are.

Chlo sells pink lemonade

But I have to tell you, my favorite part of the night was discovering Sandy and John’s daughter’s lemonade stand. Chlo is in first grade this year, and from the moment I met her (in April, when we installed the bees), I liked her. You know how you do, Reader? Well, there she was last night, sitting perfectly on a little stool behind her pink lemonade. She’d strategically opened for business outside the big open doors of the hot shop from which billowed intense heat, and her sign read: Lemonade, 1 cent. Party goers stood in line for it.

I had no money in my pocket at this point, Reader…not even a single penny. And how do you ask for a nice glass of ice-cold lemonade without paying for it?! So I sat through much of the glass-blowing demonstration dreaming of pink lemonade. Seriously. At some point, Chlo came to me and asked me if I wanted a glass of lemonade. I confessed to her that all I could think about was pink lemonade. All night…pink lemonade in a clear cup. She poured a nice glass of it for me. The clear cup she gave me frosted with coolness. It was perfect…absolutely delicious…probably because she’d been so sweet to seek me out and offer it.

We visited. I told Chlo that I thought she was showing interest in becoming a business woman. She agreed. I asked her if she knew yet what kind of business she hoped to establish. And, Reader, do you know what she said? She sort of shrugged and said, “Lemonade?” She said it as if it were a question. And I thought, well, yes, why the heck not lemonade?! I don’t know of a single world-famous lemonade business, so it seems to me the field is wide open for a dynamo.

And I learned a great lesson from Chlo: Why always look to the future when you’ve got a great thing going on right this minute? And why seek to be a world-famous operation? Why not simply enjoy yourself as you provide lemonade to the thirsty people standing right in front of you at the moment, and let the rest take care of itself?

Chlo’s dad says she’s talked for some time about a lemonade stand. And there she was, making her dream a reality. As we talked, she asked her mother if she could sell lemonade at that spot on Saturdays; together, they worked out a plan: Yes, she could sell lemonade on Saturdays so long as an adult was with her. And she could sit right there at the entrance to the hot shop where there’s a steady weekend traffic of thirsty glass blowers and passersby—Chlo nodded as if to say, Yep, this is definitely gonna work out.

 

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Sandy Gross and John Hutton in honeybee party attire
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Her other shoe is a flower
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JW May's honeybee...blown in glass. (And broken. Occupational hazard)
Top bar hive with slipping top bars

No Worries: If I Mess it up, I’ll also Fix it

Top bar hive with slipping top bars

I’m still paying the price for a choice I made in preparation for spring…I thought I’d found a terrific and inexpensive material from which to build this year’s top-bar hives.

I built about 10 hive bodies from rough-cut cedar fencing…the cedar fencing isn’t too expensive, and I love the way it looks and feels. I thought it was perfect for the bees.

Immediately, however, once we all installed our bees in the newly-built hive boxes, we discovered the first problem with the cedar fencing: It’s very light…which makes it good when it comes to handling the hive boxes, but bad when the wind picks up. So, when the winds blew and before the bees had built enough comb to give the hive weight, the hives toppled over. Toppled hives all over town. Not good for bees. Not good for the beekeeper’s psyche, either.

Later in the season, when the bees increased in number and after they’d built comb and stored brood and honey, another problem raised its ugly head: The top board of cedar siding began to bow under the weight of bee life. This creates two unwanted situations:

  1. It created a gap between the bottom and the top side boards…and the bees quickly begin using this gap as an entrance. And, for reasons I’ll explain in another post, we want the bees to use an entrance at the end of the hive bodies…not in the middle (this relates to the location of honey when the bees cluster over winter…see why I’m not going into it now?!).
  2. When the sides of the hive bow outward, the bars that rest on the top board slip into the hive.
  3. Which means the honeycomb rests and melts on the bottom of the hive box.
  4. Bees never intentionally attach comb at the bottom…they use that space for travel (and other things).
  5. And when the comb melts to the bottom of the hive, the beekeeper has to rip it apart to remove and inspect it. Not good

Therefore, this situation must be rectified.

I’ve figured out a solution to the problem, but it requires visiting each of the affected hives and, hive by hive, replacing the flimsier cedar siding with more substantial cedar. I’ve learned to perform this operation on the spot (though it does require moving the bees temporarily into another hive body).

At first, I was kicking myself for having to go around and repair all those hive bodies when I thought I had other, more-pressing business to do. But now I simply see it as the price to pay for becoming more aware. It’s also a terrific opportunity to see the bees with my customers and my friends.

And it’s good to do whatever is required to make something right…so people know that if I make a mistake, I’ll fix it.

Bob's top-bar hive

My Team of Bee Experts

Sorry I’ve been so quiet here lately, Reader…it’s been anything but quiet off the blog.

I’ve been practicing my bee-removal skills all over Cincinnati…but these past few days, Nicola—my right-hand bee girl—has been sick as a dog. And the contractors with whom I work are busy with other jobs. Which means I’ve been forced to take a week off from bee removals…which is good for me. It gives me time to clean my car. And to update my books. And to clean my house and cook my dinners. And to visit my own bees.

When the people I work with are unavailable for jobs, it makes me think that I may need to expand my bee-removal team of experts…so if anyone knows a good Cincinnati contractor who’s willing to work among the bees, please let me know. And, though Nicola is my ace, she may not always be available. I mean, she’s got an actual big-time job over at the Cincinnati Review. And she’s a mom. We can’t overuse her for these removals. So, I’m looking for an alternative assistant bee remover. Someone who delights in the unknown (this will balance me…I’m petrified of the unknown, and I resist it. The surprises we find in the removals energize Nicola…and that energy carries us a long long way).

Perhaps I should use the down time this week to build more top-bar hives. Yes! That’s a great idea!

And speaking of top-bar hives…my friend Bob-the-architect has constructed the top-bar hives pictured below. Yesterday, he redesigned the roof on his hive, and I think it’s gorgeous in its elegance. There’s something in its quiet curviness that appeals to me. Bob is brilliant.

And, Reader, these hive boxes are available for purchase. Bob will build it for you…just give us about 3-weeks’ notice because Bob is also a big wig in his real life. Very big. But he’s agreed to build these top-bar hives for you. My top-bar hives are entry level. Bob’s are special…Bob’s have windows and curved roofs…he’ll paint yours for you. Whatever color you want. Or you can paint it.

Want a nice and sturdy and gorgeous and personalized top-bar hive with a window? A top-bar hive built by a very big-time architect with good karma? We’ve got it!

Bob's top-bar hive
Bob's top-bar hive (rear view)

 

Nicola Mason: Bees and Bloom

Bee Love and Marketing

My new TwoHoneys Bee Co. business cards arrived yesterday, and I have to say that I’m delighted by them. The thermal printing makes the bee’s raised wings look as if they’re shimmering. I didn’t expect that…and I don’t think the printer did either. We were so happy to open the box and see all that shimmering going on.

So, to celebrate, I’ve created a new series of long-sleeve t-shirts over at Cafe Press (patience with the Cafe Press site. I set it up myself this morning and it still looks pretty rough. But it works). I’ll be adding more wonderful swag as TwoHoneys progresses, so if you have an idea for a t-shirt or other cool marketing brilliance, send it on to me (liz@two-honeys.com), and I’ll try to make it happen.

(I’ve asked Nicola to create a t-shirt for TwoHoneys, and she has enthusiastically agreed. Which thrills me. We will not rush her, though. Creativity needs space. Nicola says it also needs to learn Photoshop.)

As a teaser, though—just so you get a sense of what’s coming—here’s one of Nicola’s newest collages (to see more of Nicola’s work, visit her beautiful website.  Frankly, it’s worth the trip over there just to read the titles of her collages. Sometimes I go just for that):

Nicola Mason: Bees and Bloom

 

Belly up

Yes. But I Cannot Go Belly Up.

Belly up

Here’s my current dilemma: How can I get a bee business to steadily grow in a contained sort of way?

This is what happens: Along the way, some wonderful people learn that I keep bees and that I help other people begin beekeeping. And those wonderful people really really really want to keep bees, too. So they invite me to help them get started. Now, how do I say “Yes” to all these nice people while also keeping the business contained (which means keeping my costs down, my profits up, and my time well managed)?

Let me explain why this is a challenge: Not all of these wonderful future beekeepers live near me. Most of them live 30-40 miles away…and they don’t all live near one another either. I mean, if they all lived near one another, then most of my problem is solved. But some live 30 miles to the north; others live 25 miles to the east; another 20 miles south, in Kentucky. And next season, we hope to install 10-20 hives on the farm south of Lexington. And somehow I need to coordinate all these visits to all these hives once every 9-14 days.

Not only do I need to coordinate all of my visits to the hives placed in a certain region,  but I also need to coordinate my visits with the keeper of the bees…the bee stewards…and most people aren’t available during weekdays to inspect their hives. Which means I could be driving hundreds and hundreds of miles each week…and at inconvenient hours.

So, yes, of course I can do it. But I can’t do it for free. I cannot go belly up just because I love bees and all these wonderful people. Which gets us into a tough spot—I have to charge for this service. Yes, there are all sorts of financial models for this…I just have to figure out which models make the most sense for my purposes. No matter how I cut it, though, some people will not like the way I answer “Yes.”

I won’t bore you further with this, Reader. Just want to let you know what I’m wrestling with now that the bees have slowed their activity. The bees and I are all turning inward and preparing our big plans for spring.