Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bearding bees

We've finally had a couple of hot days, with temps in the upper 80s, after a long stretch of cooler and cloudier weather and afternoon storms. The bees have been able to get out and about, of course, but they are much more active when it's nice and hot and sunny and they can work without fear of interruption.

Warmer days also mean a warmer hive. The ideal temperature in the hive is about 95 degrees, summer and winter. If it's cold out, the bees cluster together and vibrate their wing muscles to create heat to keep themselves and their brood warm. If it's hot, the foragers are out as much as possible while the house bees work on tending to the young, cleaning the hive and managing the honey and pollen stores.

And keeping the air moving. Bees position themselves throughout the hive and fan their wings to accomplish this. Good air circulation helps maintain a steady temperature and evaporates the water that is in the stored nectar. When the nectar is sufficiently "cured" and capped with wax, that's honey!

If it's really hot out, the bees will bring in extra water for evaporative cooling. And at night, when the hive is full, the bees will gather on the stoop in large numbers, a phenomenon called "bearding." Bees will beard if the hive is too crowded (a warning sign that they might swarm), but it's also just something they do when they're hot.

When I went out in the garden late last night to cut some herbs, I could hear my bees buzzing and discovered they were bearding. I took some pictures with the flash (as above), but they weren't great.

Tonight I went out with the tripod and used my headlamp to illuminate them instead. That worked better.
Click on this photo (and the flower ones above) to see it larger.

I don't worry about swarming, as I know they've still got lots of building room, and this is a pretty small beard. I figure the girls are just enjoying the balmy summer evening.

Monday, June 22, 2009

High on bees

Oh look, another swarm!
Would've been fun to capture it myself, but here's why I couldn't:
Yeah, I don't have a 12-foot-ladder like Michael does. The bees first clustered in one tree, then took off and reclustered down the block.

It's really interesting to follow along under a cloud of bees, trying to figure out where they're going.

This was a big swarm and took an hour to vacuum up. They were headed to a family in Nederland, up in the mountains. A swarm that size might have a good chance to build up enough stores there before winter comes.

Sure hope so. They were sweet girls.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Frolic Friday

Now with 200 percent more poodles!


When I did my first inspection of the hive last week, I asked Deb if she'd come take pictures. Not just as a record for the blog, but also because I could then examine the combs more closely at my leisure simply by enlarging the photos. And I could ask those who are more expert to look at them, too.

I had my own camera set up on a tripod to take video, and it really bums me out that it came out blurry. I think a bee may have flown in front of it as I was focusing, and I didn't notice because of the veil. Next time, I will double-check that, and also shoot in shorter, Youtube-friendly segments to minimize the need to edit down. Lessons learned.

I let Deb wear the full bee suit and just donned a veil and gloves myself. The gloves probably weren't necessary, but I didn't want to risk another ring-finger sting.

The first thing I did was mark the top bars with a yardstick. I read a tip, too late, to shove all the bars to one side before the bees start building comb. That way, when you take a bar out, you can put it back in exactly as it was positioned before.
You also want to mark the bars so you put them back in facing the same direction as when they came out. Bees do some pretty fancy calculus to position their combs just so, and you don't want to mess that up.

My solution was to draw a line across all the bars. When I put bars back, I made sure the line matched up again.

Then I started working through the bars, starting at the end farthest from the entrance. The far bars were empty, but I could tell when I was getting closer to comb because they were more and more glued down by propolis. My lovely hive tool came in handy for gently prying the bars loose.
Propolis is basically bee-glue created from tree sap. It has anti-microbial properties and is used to plug up small holes, smooth rough edges and stick things together so the hive is nice and solid.

It was pretty exciting to get to the first comb!
It's so cute! This bar is just getting started. Notice how the bees have found the precise center of the bar and are working outward from there.
The next comb was even bigger.
See the bees hanging off each other on the bottom of the comb? That's called "festooning."
It sounds very festive, doesn't it? What they're doing is creating a living plumb line so that their comb is built exactly perpendicular to the pull of gravity.

Here I'm holding an imaginary plumb bob and as I explain festooning to Deb.

This is why a top bar hive has to be absolutely level. If your hive is tilted, your comb will be, too, and that may make it difficult to remove.

The next bars were completely built out.
I was looking at each bar and trying to figure out what I was looking at. And not really knowing what to be looking for. Mainly, I was concerned about finding evidence of a queen.
I wasn't looking for the queen herself (she's hard to spot), but for eggs and brood. Brood is babies, and if you've got a lot of brood, you know you've got a queen.

I got some expert opinions on the last post to help me, and the consensus was that the capped cells are capped brood (and not honey) in a nice, solid pattern, which indicates a productive queen. In other words, this hive is "queenright." Hooray!

When I got the rest of the photos from Deb at a somewhat higher resolution, I was able to blow them up and see larvae in some of the cells.
I should explain the bee life cycle here: The queen lays an egg in a cell. When it hatches into a larva, the nurse bees feed it honey, pollen and royal jelly. When it gets big and fat, the workers cap over the cell, and the larva spins a cocoon (just like a butterfly), pupates and becomes an adult bee, emerging to become a worker herself.

In the above photo, you can see a couple larvae in the cells at the center. Around the top is honey, and around the bottom is capped brood.

It is actually possible for a hive to continue for some time without a queen, so wondering if I had one or not was a valid concern.

I still had six bars to inspect, but the sound of thunder started making me a little anxious, and the bees were also getting more agitated. They didn't want to get rained on, either! So I decided to stop there.
I was taught that you never want to be more than a couple of steps away from closing the hive. That way, if you or the bees start having issues, you can quickly close up and go. With the top bar hive, you could always just toss an extra bar into the gap. But otherwise, you're just sliding all the following bars forward like hanging files.

The only thing that slows down the process is the girls themselves, who invariably insist on trying to dash out or in as you are slowly easing the bars closed. You can get them closed without crushing anyone, but it takes patience.
"Mind the gap, girls, mind the gap!"

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

First inspection

My friend Deb took the photos, and I took video. But my video came out all blurry (grrrrr) and Deb wanted to clean up her pictures a little. But she was willing to give me these for starters, so I can ask other beefolk about what I'm seeing. (Click the photos to see them larger)
This was bar No. 7, which is as far as I got (it started thundering and the bees were getting anxious). In other words, there were six bars closer to the front of the hive that I didn't get to. Bars presumably full of brood. I hope! (Twelve bars total were built out.)

But really, I can't tell what brood is supposed to look like. And when I look closer at the bees, as below, I still don't know what I'm seeing.
See that one bee close to the center with her kiester in a cell? Is she a new bee coming out? Or is she a worker laying eggs (my main fear)? She doesn't look like a queen. Or does she?

Beefolk, what do you think?

Edit: The consensus from the Organic Beekeeping group is that the top photo is indeed a good, solid pattern of capped brood (babies). Which means I do have a queen! Hooray!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Imitation is not just flattery

Every time I stop to watch bees on flowers, I run into something else new. While the bees have so far been concentrating on the salvias and the bachelor buttons (Centaurea cyanus), they are now showing an interest in the newly blooming lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina):
As I was zooming in on the bees, I heard a different kind of buzzing and caught this fellow (or gal) hovering about:
Hmm. Looks and acts bee-ish – hovering, buzzing, feeding on nectar – but isn't. But also not a yellowjacket or wasp.

(Edit: I originally posted that this was a member of the Syrphid family, known as a flower fly or hover fly. But I was wrong, as a commenter pointed out. It's really a wool carder bee, a solitary member of the bee family.)
What was funny about this one, though, was that it had decided that the clump of lamb's ears was its exclusive territory. Every time a bee would come in for a taste, the fly would land on the bee and drive her off. That would happen too fast for me to get a photo, sorry!

But it didn't seem to mind me hovering around with my camera, and even set down for a portrait.
The lamb's ear makes for some very '70s upholstery, don't you think? And the bee looks to be wearing shades. Cool, man.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Poky Little Puppy

Back before all this pneumonia business started, Sophie was suffering pretty badly from arthritis. So I started her on an anti-inflammatory. But that messed up her stomach. It may have been throwing up from that that gave her the pneumonia. But she's always been a throw-uppy kind of dog anyway. She feels bad, she barfs, she feels better.

So now she appears to be over the pneumonia, but we've still got the arthritis to contend with. Here's how she walks. Notice the extra little painful skipping steps:

We're now trying something that doesn't involve drugs. Instead, it involves needles.
Yes, acupuncture. The vet at the emergency/specialty clinic suggested it. They have an acupuncturist there on staff, but I didn't want to subject Sophie to the place again. Or my wallet.

Happily, Beeb's vet does acupuncture, too, and is quite nearby. Maybe not any cheaper, though. I told her to use lots of needles so I get my money's worth.

Sophie seems to tolerate it OK, but it's hard to tell what, if anything, is improving. Then again, she's only had two sessions. The vet said to look for some "extra spark." Except she's plenty sparky. She just hurts a lot.
She really doesn't like going to the vet, but we'll keep doing this for a little while, anyway.

Give peas a chance

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

European paper wasp

I had left a small plastic pot overturned on top of small post next to the garden, and when I took it off a few days ago, I discovered this lady and her babies beneath it. (Click the photo to see her larger.)
She is a European paper wasp, a new and rapidly spreading arrival in Colorado (first spotted here in 2001). I found this out thanks to a helpful Colorado State University Extension fact sheet written by Whitney Cranshaw, the don of Colorado creepy-crawlies.

This fertilized queen spent the winter by herself in some sheltered spot, then started building her nest, making paper from wood that she had chewed to pulp. Her little colony will grow throughout the summer, then die off next fall, leaving behind a few more queens to start the process anew.

To give you an idea of her size, that post is just 1.5 inches square. I marked it with an arrow in the photo below. Please ignore the rest of the mess that is my garden.
I'm debating whether to let her stay there. Unlike yellowjackets (which look a lot like her, but fatter), she is not a scavenger, preferring to feast on caterpillars and other insects, many of them garden pests. But as her brood grows, I fear the wasplets may become more defensive of that space, which you can see is right next to the garden faucet. I also wonder if wasps eat honeybees.

I guess I'd better get more info and make a decision soon!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Extracting bees

Last week I got a call from a guy who had a swarm move into a pillar on his front porch and start building a hive. "I've got grandkids. I can't have bees there." I reassured him that the bees weren't dangerous and said I'd try to find someone to help remove them. That someone was Michael, with his BeeVac.
Yes, a bee vaccuum. Who knew? The first time I heard of it, I laughed. It's got enough suction to pull a bee in, but not enough (you hope) to really injure her.
Some people refuse to use BeeVacs, preferring instead to remove the comb and string it up in a hive box, then brush as many bees in as possible and wait for the rest to follow on their own. That would have been very simple to do in this case (and saved the bees' work for them), but I can see the appeal of expediency.

Michael does try to be as gentle as possible.

Bees that are established in a spot are usually trickier to remove than a swarm because they have a babies and stores to defend, and may have built out a significant amount of comb that will need to be removed as well. If you leave the comb behind, it will attract all manner of pests (including, possibly, another swarm of bees).
But these girls were very mild-mannered. Neither Michael nor I was wearing any protective gear, nor did we need it. Emptying the hive took about 45 minutes. The girls were all together and headed off to a new adventure in someone's backyard hive.
I felt sorry for them in their undoubtedly great confusion.

As Michael was putting everything away, I saw workers coming in from the field with full pollen baskets, alighting on the pillar and looking completely lost. Can you imagine?

Happily, when Michael realized it was more than just a few bees, he hooked the vac up again and was able to nab a couple dozen stragglers.
Here's some of their comb. It's so new and white! Older comb turns yellow, then black, as countless bees walk all over it. Some of this comb had honey in it, other parts had pollen.

And the honeycomb that looked empty was anything but. I've enlarged a section for you:
You can click on the picture to make it even bigger. And what do you see in each cell? That's a bee egg! The queen was a busy girl.

And I hope she and her workers are now happily settled in again.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Friday, June 05, 2009

FOBs (Friends of Bees)

I felt lucky to capture a shot of this black-and-white bee, if only from the back. It turned out to be a plasterer bee (family Colletidae).

This mostly solitary bee is often only active for a few weeks each year. The female gathers pollen in a ball, places an egg on it and hides it in a burrow that she "plasters" with a special secretion. The secretion dries like cellophane and makes the burrow waterproof. The young bees eat the pollen and stay in the burrow over the winter, emerging in the spring as adults. Kind of a boring life, but it works! And they pollinate flowers along the way.

Another bee cousin is the bumble bee:
Bumble bees build colonies, too, but the hives are smaller (sometimes just 50 bees or so) and not nearly as well-organized. Bumble bees can also sting but rarely do so. I was chasing this gal all over trying to get a good shot.
I took it in the garden of the man who's responsible for the plant collections at the Denver Botanic Gardens. His place overlooks Denver from the east (if it weren't cloudy, you could see the mountains) and is a great example of turning an awkward blank slate of a yard into a showpiece. I'm taking notes!

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Hard to imagine

There's now an entire generation that doesn't remember this.

I'd like to go back there someday and see how things have changed.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Ladybug love

We knew about the birds and the bees. Now we know about the bugs, too.

Click on the photo to see it larger.