Natural History Notes

Friday, August 06, 2010


Twenty-plus degree drop in temperature in the last 15 minutes, from around 106° or 107° down to about 85°, as a thunderstorm moved in. It was blowing mist through the back screen door or a south wind,now it is sprinklng me through the window over the antique bed on northwest gusts. I don't care, as long as it keeps raining.

It has been well over a hundred now every day for a week, and the forecast calls for more. Yesterday we got a very brief but hard rain, and now the second is so welcome. Too late, probably, for my elbow-bush that was still in its pot at the Ridge. I didn't get out there from Sunday to Wednesday, and it was crispy. Maybe there is some life in the roots; I will hope so. The herb bed was all droopy, but perked right up with water. If these two thunderstorms have hit there, it should be fine.


Sunday, August 01, 2010

more on bees

This is my guest blog post graciously run by Robin McKinley on her blog last week:

I have been interested in the idea of keeping bees for a while. Fifteen years ago I took a course, but for several reasons didn’t get bees. I had another chance this spring, and this time I was really ready to take them on.

The class was taught by two professional beekeepers. John was a beekeeping hobbyist before he retired from his engineering job, and since then he has increased his operation until he has several hundred colonies and a pretty full-time job again. His partner Blake was one of the local beekeeping club’s youth scholarship students as a thirteen-year-old. He took to the bees so successfully that now he owns about three hundred colonies, and is president this year of the club. He’s nineteen!

Their main beeyards are many miles south, where there is a better honeyflow.* Their honey house**, site of the class, is about 60 miles from me, at John’s home. In general, they don’t keep bees there at their home site, because it would be a serious nuisance when they were processing honey to have thousands of local bees battering at the door of the honey house to get the sticky sweet as they were bottling it. But they have a sideline of supplying a couple hundred new “nucs,” or nucleus hives, each spring to hobbyists in the Collin County area.

So in the early spring they accept hive boxes, put three or four frames of bees and brood from their strongest hives into each one, plus a new queen***, set them out behind the honey house, and feed them for six weeks to get them to start building up their numbers. Then the students, beginners, and other customers come back on the designated evenings and get their new hives.

Here is John’s driveway (John is on the right) with all the hives he is going to fill with bees. One of my frames had a tiny bit of extra protein, in addition to the glue and the nails, from an incautious hammer blow on the side of my finger. But the red spot doesn’t show in this photo. The red arrow points to MY hive.

I brought home my bees about 10pm on April 29. They look very small in my backyard (and as I look back at this picture, it’s so green! The yard is all dry and crunchy and straw-colored now). At this time there were probably around eight thousand bees in the hive. My first hive inspection is on Youtube.

Although John showed me my queen when I got the hive, I could never spot her myself. A couple of weeks later, I was upset to see queen cells built on the surface of the comb. These are extensions put over normal cells when the workers realize, by the diminished pheromones, that their queen is ailing or missing. If they have worker larvae less than three days old, they can enlarge their cells and keep feeding them royal jelly and thereby produce new queens, a process called supersedure.

This is a fairly normal occurrence, but beekeepers don’t like to see it, because there is a three-week gap in the hive’s springtime growth, while the new queen grows up, gets mated, and starts to lay eggs. But anyway, my bees managed it, and on June 17th I saw the queen, and lots of sealed cells of pupating young bees.

I’ll talk about some divergent philosophies of beekeeping, describe an inspection, and also let you know how much harvest I was able to get in this first year, in a couple of subsequent posts. Meanwhile, my cousin Kieren Ladner visited a few weeks ago. He is a professional photographer, and kindly agreed to document a hive inspection, so I have a supply of nice detailed photos of the bees in the hive, as of June 17. He took the three above.

I spend a lot of time sitting out in front of the hive with binoculars, watching the coming and going, and wishing I had x-ray vision. Also I WISH I had Elizabeth Moon’s (emoontx’s) camera, AND her skill at photographing bugs.

* Honeyflow is beekeeper jargon for the annual period(s) when a great many flowers are blooming and offering nectar, and bees can rapidly build up lots of surplus honey.

** The Honey House is the beekeeper’s production facility for extracting and bottling honey. State regulations cover such requirements as stainless steel fixtures and washable walls and floor. You can NOT use your kitchen and legally sell your honey.

*** The queen is the only fully-developed fertile female in the hive. She lays up to 1000 eggs per day in the spring when the colony is building up its strength for the honeyflow. The workers hatch from fertilized eggs, but their diet causes them to develop wax glands and mandibular glands (for making food for baby bees) but not functional ovaries. Their ovipositor becomes modified to the stinger.°

° And yes, I have been stung. Three times so far, and all of them avoidable if I had been paying attention to the bees’ behavior, and had not been stubborn. Two were relatively benign, the third must have had much more venom in her, cause it HURT and kept hurting for a couple of days. So now I pay more attention, and I try not to be stubborn. If they look or sound cranky, be flexible in your plans. GO AWAY.