Capped brood and larvae

A Brood Frame Free of Nurse Bees

Capped brood and larvae
Babees: photographer Scott Beseler (Soapbox Cincinnati)

This is a frame of brood brushed free of its usual attending nurse bees. I’d brushed the bees off because I removed this frame from the Nicola hive (which lives in my beeyard)—named in honor of Nicola Mason’s first swarm capture—and I’d given it to a hive that currently lives in Nicola’s apiary, the Bebe hive. Why did I make that swap? Because the Bebe hive started out as a tiny, queenless hive and lacked the resources from which to make a new queen.

Giving a queenless colony comb containing either eggs or larvae (4-days old or younger) from another hive allows the bees in the queenless hive to make a queen from the donated eggs or larvae. So, it’s handy when beekeepers have other colonies from which to draw these resources…which is one reason most new beekeepers are encouraged to keep at least two colonies. Without another resource, colonies often fail.

If the Bebe bees choose to make a queen from the frame shown above, then their queen will be the genetic daughter of the queen laying in the Nicola hive…and the entire Bebe colony will eventually take on the characteristics of the very calm and productive Nicola colony.

In the image above, this is what you see (from bottom to top):

  1. empty cells (in the lower right-hand corner and across the bottom)
  2. larvae (the “C”-shaped, white, wormy things. It’s called “larvae” until it’s capped)
  3. capped brood (the lighter the capping, the younger the pupa. Once it’s capped and before it emerges, it’s called “pupa”)
  4. the empty cells spotting the capped brood? Cells from which young bees have already emerged. And that cell will forever be darker than the cells which never contained brood.
  5. You see more larvae in the upper left-hand corner. A good-laying queen lays her eggs in a circular pattern starting from the center and working her way out, so it stands to reason that larvae around the edges are in similar developmental stages. Yep, this is a good queen.
And this is a wonderful photograph. Thanks to Scott Beseler of Soapbox Cincinnati.



Honeybee swarm

From "Colony" to "Swarm" to "Colony"

I don’t love the telephone. However, these past few months I get a lot of calls about bees, and I like those calls a lot. Why? I don’t know…maybe because I’m never sure what situation will present itself, and that’s fun. These past couple of weeks, I’ll bet I get 2 or 3 calls each week about “swarms of bees” somewhere. A couple of months ago, this number was higher.

But what the callers usually describe are not swarms of bees. You see, Reader, a swarm is a very specific term used for bees in the midst of migrating from one home to another. Before they swarm, they’re part of a colony of bees. When they leave that colony and set up a new home, they’ll once again be a colony of bees. While they’re between the two—while migrating—they’re considered a swarm. They move from “colony” to “swarm” to “colony.”

A swarm is usually spotted hanging in a big, droopy, living, breathing blob on a tree branch or a light post or some other structure on which it’s easy to hang together. The swarm waits there for about 12-48 hours until the scout bees decide on a new home; once the new home is found…poof!…the swarm is gone in a blink of an eye. While it hangs there, however, a swarm of bees seems both awesome and scary (I call it “sublime”), so people call a beekeeper about it.

Honeybee swarm
Honeybee swarm

There’s a swarm season, Reader. Bees in Ohio usually swarm during our spring months…April through June.

I’ve discovered that people who call me about “a swarm” (when we’re not in swarm season) really mean to report “a lot of bees swarming around” their roofline or their doorframe or their soffit; the bees have been “swarming” for a while, and the caller is worried. Well, Reader, this is not a swarm…remember, a swarm doesn’t yet have a home of its own. The good news is this: The bees these callers call about already have a nice home. The bad news for the caller is this: The bees’ home is also the caller’s home.

This post is getting too long, so I’ll finish it tomorrow.

Waiting for the Brain to Clear

Now that I’ve had a day for my brain to clear, I can offer a brief report of my responses to the 2010 Northeast Treatment-Free Beekeeping Conference: It was tiring. I mean…it was three and a half 13-hour days of programming. And that’s an awful lot of exhausting.

But it was also approximately 45 hours of bee school, and that makes for a much smarter beekeeper…as soon as all that information sort of settles in, that is. Right now, it’s free floating.

Okay. Maybe I’m still too tired to give you a good reflection. I’ll do it one day soon, though, yes? Because my emerging beekeeping philosophy continues to develop, and I know you’re on pins and needles wanting to hear about it. :)

Let me simply remind you of this for today: If you buy your honey from the grocery store, it probably comes to you from China, and the bees that made it were treated with some very serious chemicals inserted directly into their hive.

If you buy your honey from a local source such as a farmer’s market or from that nice old guy at the end of the lane, the bees that made it were almost certainly treated with the very same, very serious chemicals that were inserted directly into the Chinese hives. And even though the bottle says your honey is pure honey, it’s not. It’s full of chemicals that 99% of the beekeepers believe is necessary to use in order to keep their bees alive. And I’m serious about this shit. It’s appalling.

I tell you this because I am experiencing it first hand. I have been sold (and I am still in possession of) the assortment of chemicals of which I speak. They are in my garage near the trash can. They’ve been there for over a year. Every single solitary beekeeper I know—other than those with whom I gathered this week—use those chemicals without even thinking about it. When to treat the bees is taught in beginner’s bee schools. And then everyone wonders why the bees are dying.

It’s not the beekeepers’ fault. Most of them know no other way and have not considered alternatives. But there is another way. And it’s up to a small number of curious beekeepers who naturally gravitate to research and who are hell-bent on returning to natural beekeeping (which, I admit, it a problematic term as there is nothing “natural” about beekeeping) to change the thinking of an entire beekeeping culture.

Have I whet your appetite for more? I hope so.

Here’s what you can do to help, Reader:

  1. If you want to begin keeping bees, consider the very fun return to natural beekeeping. To do so, you can start by reading the wonderfully smart and surprisingly enjoyable Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping. It’s not for idiots. It’s for smart people, and it’s written by smart people whom I now know. They’re even smarter in person. The book series simply has a dumbed-down title. It’s a wonderful beginning point for those wishing to keep bees without the use of chemicals.
  2. If you already keep bees but want to stop the insane chemical applications and stop losing your bees every single winter and have healthier, faster, smaller, calmer bees, begin by reading the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping. And join the Organic Beekeepers Yahoo group. And read Michael Bush’s delightful website (you can find the link on this blogroll).
  3. If you don’t keep bees but you want to eat pure honey made by happier, healthier bees that have not ever been treated by UNBELIEVABLY STRONG CHEMICALS APPLIED DIRECTLY INTO THE HIVE AND INTO YOUR HONEY, then please begin asking your honey supplier to consider the above two points. Gently and gently and gently remind your supplier each time you purchase your nice jar of honey that there is another way. It’s scary and difficult to change the way we do things…we all know that. That’s why we’ve got to be gentle. But it’s also very fun to do what we all know is right. It’s exhilarating. And your local beekeepers want to do it…they simply need encouragement. And they need to see others doing it. Which is where I come in. :)

Here’s one thing I’m thinking. I’m considering the paint-free approach to hive boxes. It saves time and money, and I think it looks kind of cool, too. What do you think, Reader?

Meet Some Treatment-Free Beekeepers

Sometime during the day yesterday, I got bored. Maybe because 13 hours of anything just wears me out…I’ve been slipping away from the conference. I slip out of the room and outside to the sun. I take long walks in the woods. I slip into the car and drive to the hotel for a nap. I slip back into the room but feel as if I’ve not missed much.

I do like these people, but as you know, Reader, I get tired of all people…even those I like.

I like this person a lot. She’s smart and strong and riles people up—government people…scientists…that kind of people.

Dee Lusby, Arizona commercial, treatment-free beekeeper and rabbel rouser.
Dee Lusby, Arizona commercial, treatment-free beekeeper and rabbel rouser.

And Kirk Webster is one of the most gentle, thoughtful, and understatedly intelligent people I’ve met in a long long time. I sort of want to be like him.

Kirk Webster, Commercial beekeeper from Vermont's Champlain Valley
Kirk Webster, Commercial beekeeper from Vermont's Champlain Valley

Sam Comfort is “living the dream.” Words hardly describe him. Once I get to know him better, I’ll tell you more about him. You’ll like him.

Sam Comfort, barefoot beekeeper who marches to the beat of a different drummer
Sam Comfort, barefoot beekeeper who marches to the beat of a different drummer

This is a home-fashioned top-bar hive. I think I’ll make one over the winter. You can buy them commercially made, but they won’t look this cool.

One of Sam Comfort's home-built top-bar hives
One of Sam Comfort's home-built top-bar hives

Dean Stiglitz blows me away. I think he’s simply brilliant. I could listen to him teach all day long without slipping out for a break.

Dean Stiglitz, co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping, commercial treatment-free beekeeper, and a most-natural teacher
Dean Stiglitz, co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping, commercial treatment-free beekeeper, and a most-natural teacher

Beekeeping By the Gut

I’ve found my people. (I found my people after getting pretty crazily lost in Boston. I must have passed Fenway Park 3 or 4 times. I swear to you…I could smell the hot dogs before I spotted Fenway. No lie.)

Eventually I got back on track and made it to Leominster, Massachusetts in time for the first session of the 2010 Treatment-Free Beekeeping Conference. I alway anticipate feeling bored or disconnected at these kinds of get togethers, and I was completely prepared to feel that way here. But from the get go, I felt at ease and I’ve made friends with whom I’m already comfortable.

I’d say there are about 75-100 people here…which isn’t many by most conference standards, but it’s a healthy number when you consider that these folks are keeping their bees treatment free. Which—and I cannot impress this upon you enough, Reader—is RARE. The bees that make the honey that most of us eat and think of as “natural” have been treated with some pretty powerful and pretty nasty shit. And it’s coming back to haunt us. The people here are here to stop the madness.

One speaker last night off-handedly began talking about reading the bees…how one learns to watch the bees’ flight and listen to their music or their grumblings and to smell the different smells we smell from their hives and to feel their different vibrations. And he spoke so poetically that I got choked up.

Anyway, this morning I want to tell you that I’m not lonely and I’m not bored and I like these folk. They’re odd. And strong. And vocal. And smart. And nice. And friendly. And generally more gracious and open minded than I am. And I intend to shut up and listen and learn.

Off to Massachusetts to Learn a Few Things

This morning I’m off to the Northeast Treatment Free Beekeeping conference. (I wonder if those people in charge realize that “Treatment-Free Beekeeping” requires a hyphen because there isn’t one in their title. You can’t just throw a bunch of words together and have it make sense…unless you’re me).

I don’t know if I should pack my hat and veil and my bee-working clothes. I did pack them, but it sure would have saved some room if I’d left them out. Next year, if I go back, I’ll have a better feel for things. I’m not taking my pith helmet (which I love)…just a regular hat to keep the veil out of my face.

And apparently we move to the campfire for evening things. I’m not taking my camp chair. That would be overkill, I think…don’t you? I’ll just have to lug one out from the conference center. Or sit on a log. Which is very uncomfortable.

I’ll also take my old jean jacket. I can’t remember a trip when I haven’t taken that jacket. You see it in all the pictures.

So, I guess the next time we visit, I’ll be in Massachusetts (which is not easy to spell, but I hate the MA and Mass. abbreviations of it).

Nothing New under the Sun

I rode that scooter of mine all the way out to the Creation Museum and then completely forgot to take a single picture of Doug or of his bees there or of anything at the museum. What on earth is wrong with me? You know, I’m just not a big picture taker, and I completely forget to do it. I get caught up in stuff.

I caught the tail end of Doug’s lecture about bees. I’d say there were 30 people there, which surprised me. What surprised me even more was the number of people at the Creation Museum. It was flat-out packed. I thought that maybe my presence there would set off an alarm of some kind, but not one of the thousands of people there seemed to notice me.

We visited the 6 hives Doug keeps behind the gardens at the museum, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t see anything I hadn’t already seen. We opened only a couple of hives and pulled only a couple of frames from each, but I didn’t get to watch Doug make any decisions. And I guess that’s what I need…to watch experienced beekeepers make decisions based on what they see in the hive.

Doug’s a very very nice guy, and I want to shadow him as he works his hives and makes splits, but there just wasn’t much for him to do on this visit. One of Doug’s four sons, Elijah, was there, too…he’s about 7 years old…and, wow, is he comfortable with the bees. Amazing, isn’t it, how you can sort of see a kid’s future in how they do what they do at 7?

After I got home, Suzanne came to visit and we ran out to Home Depot for a hell of a lot of nails (because a lot of new 8-frame, medium-depth supers and all their frames arrived this week, and I get to hammer them all together), and then we grabbed an ice-cream cone at Hold the Nuts; then we came back to visit the bees…who, as you can see from these beards, are hot, too.

What the Hell

So I sent out a plea on the TriState Beekeeper forum asking for a mentor. You know, in an entire year of keeping bees, I’ve never seen another person working a hive. Sure, I’ve watched videos on YouTube until I’m blue in the face, but I’ve got questions, dang it.

And this morning, I received a response from one young guy on the forum, and I notice that his signature line is a quote from the Bible—“My son, eat honey, for it is good, Yes, the honey from the comb is sweet to your taste. (Proverbs 24:13).” You know, Reader, this is not uncommon. Interestingly, a lot of beekeepers attach Biblical quotes as their signature lines on various forums. I don’t know exactly why this is, though I do have to say that it is sort of a spiritual feeling to be among the bees.

This nice guy keeps 40-50 hives and invited me to attend a beginner’s beekeeping class in Kentucky this Saturday…after which he’ll open and inspect the hives he keeps at the Creation Museum. Which is also where he conducts the beekeeping class. Yes. That’s what I said. The Creation Museum. Which I have thus far rigidly avoided.

So, imagine my surprise to realize that I’ve been invited to the Creation Museum by a very nice Proverbs-quoting fellow who has offered to help me learn about bees…he’s the first responder to my plea for help, and, Reader, I intend to go. I intend to go to the Creation Museum and learn whatever this young man is willing to teach me. What the hell. Adventures all around.

How to Make Foundationless Frames

I tried to follow some internet directions on how to start foundationless frames, but they seemed sort of messy and complicated. And yesterday I discovered a pretty good and very quick system and completely clean process that I’ll share here.

Here’s an empty deep frame with a split top…there’s a little groove in the top (the frame in the photograph is actually resting on it’s top) into which the wax foundation usually slips, and that’s where we’re going to install a guide of wax that will give the bees some direction. It tells them where to begin and which way to build their comb.

I have some unused beeswax foundation (the kind with the wire running through it). I bought the foundation before I decided that going foundationless made more sense for me and my bees. It works perfectly for this process. I simply break or tear the foundation along the wire…it breaks naturally there. Then, I lay the strip along the groove in the top of the frame.

I cover the length of the frame with the strips of foundation. Then I place my hand on the wax to soften it a bit.

Once the wax is pliable (and this works much better if it’s done in a warm room), I press a series of popsicle sticks through the wax and into the groove.

The popsicle sticks provide a frame around which the wax will wrap.

I wrap the wax up and around the popsicle sticks. The warmth from my hands softens the wax perfectly and makes it pliable. I mold it and shape it as I go.

That’s all there is to it! I now have a nice little start of wax from which the bees will hang their own comb. This process involves zero mess and requires no additional tools (other than the hive tool I use to chop off a little bit of that last popsicle stick so it’ll fit).

This takes me about 3 minutes per frame…no wax melting, no wax painting, no syringes or application tools. Just a little bit of pre-formed foundation, some popsicle sticks, and the warmth from your own hands will do it.

And I guess I’ll use these tiny leftover popsicle sticks in my smoker. Yep. This is as much about recycling and simplifying as it is about anything, right?

Mister, I Am Now Your Student

My bee buddy Chris and I took a little roadtrip. Well, we didn’t really go far. He calls, he says, “You wanna go with me?,” I say, “Sure!,” he says, “I’ll be by in about 28 minutes,” and we go.

Today he took me to visit a bee guy. Yard full of bee equipment both in use and out of use. Stacked as high as it’ll go. Garage full of extracting equipment, wax melting equipment, the works. Sheds full of more equipment. More sheds full of more equipment. Beehives everywhere. Kitchen full of honey. I cannot begin to tell you the extent of this.

Marion Ackerman lives and breathes bees. He uses chemicals in his hives, but he could tell by the way I was talking that I’m learning my stuff. No shit. I am. And I intend to learn from Marion Ackerman, too, even though I remain convinced that avoiding chemicals will mean stronger bees for me.

Marion already asked me if I wanted to go with him to look at Simpson’s place. Without a moment’s hesitation I said, “Yes,” and he knows I’m serious.

I told him he might as well start calling me his shadow. I told him I’d see him tomorrow. I may just go pop in on him, too.

Marion Ackerman and several of his hives
Chris Stevens and Marion Ackerman and some bee equipment
Some of Marion Ackerman's not-currently-in-use bee equipment (well, a swarm took up residence in one of these boxes)
A very few of Marion Ackerman's active beehives