Back in Beesness!

It’s the Summer of Bees! Yes, it’s still technically pre-solstice and a windy 65 degrees outside as I write this but that is completely immaterial and beside the point.

The point is, we did it–we finally pulled the trigger and, ready or not (more not), the bees arrived almost two months ago, on April 1.

I wanted to make sure that bee season didn’t pass us by this year so I visited the bee store website in late March and placed our order for a package of Italian bees, which I decided on because they’re popular, they’re available, and also they’re just so darned cute and yellow!

Based on everything I had read online about package bees, I was expecting they would arrive in late April or even early May. As I placed the order I saw no mention of the delivery date but didn’t think much of it, figuring I’d just call them later for the details. When I did, the girl I spoke with cheerily informed me that my delivery date would be the first of April–four days away.

Four days to decide on a final location for the hive, level the ground, buy or construct the stand, assemble the hive, make sugar water, and generally get it together. Four work days. Well, four work days, minus one for mentally preparing. And minus one for taco night with friends at the best little taco place in town! Did I mention I’m a procrastinator? So, two. Two days.

[Cue two days of cold, crappy, rainy weather.]

And that is how I came to spend the least enjoyable lunch hour of my life on Friday, March 31, uprooting pachysandra and digging through mud in rainy, 35-degree weather. In my work clothes. I’m pretty sure my distressed pleather booties were never meant to see that kind of hard labor. Nor my jeggings. Nor ANY jeggings.

Anyway, I ended up with this little patch of level(ish) ground to set the hive base on.

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The following day, with much anticipation, we piled into the car and drove the hour to the bee store to meet our bees, incoming from California. We got to the bee store, presented our sales slip, and were told that we could drive around to the back and pick up our package whenever we were ready. We still had lots of supplies to gather so we spent a while doing that.

When we went to check out, we got the first clue that something more than retail was afoot in this establishment–one of the staff stepped back into the store from outside to take over the cash register and got stung mid-transaction by a bee that had crawled up his pant leg. He barely paused to swat and shake his pants a bit, then went back to his work. I gave Dana a sideways glance. Were we ready for our future as fleshy, pink pincushions?

The back of the bee store was like nothing I’ve witnessed before in life. See, the bee store pretends to be a normal store in the front. Bee-centric, obviously, but fairly normal. In reality it is business up front, beepocalypse in the back. We pulled the car around and parked in the loading area, which was full of clouds of bees, stacked with boxes of bees, and every horizontal surface was coated in a layer of dead bees. I kind of didn’t want to get out of the car.

But we had to. Well, Dana and I had to. Our daughter got to stay in the car to avoid having to describe the scene to her psychologist in thirty years. Also, I had to grab our bee package (the bees not all entirely inside of the package), without looking terrified and attracting derision from the jolly, bee-covered people around me. So I did grab it but I must have been holding it gingerly with two fingertips, because Dana swooped in and took it from me. He placed it carefully in the cardboard box we had ready in the trunk and we drove back home home.

The metal hive stand we settled on was built for an eight-frame Langstroth but it fit well enough and we had the hive ready to go in no time. The weather was still chilly, though, so we took the advice of one of the nice, bee-encrusted gentlemen we had talked to at the bee store and waited until the next day when the temperature was supposed to break 60 degrees. In the meantime the bees stayed on the couch in our garage, like a house guest you don’t want to kick out but don’t trust quite enough to put in the guest room.

The poor little loose bees were still clinging faithfully to the outside of the box, looking very disoriented. I sprayed the sides of the box with sugar water every several hours or so to keep morale up, or whatever. They seemed to have plenty of syrup left in their feeder but the outside bees couldn’t reach it. I tried not to get them wet as I spritzed the box.

The next day, as soon as it started to show signs that it might be decently warm, we prepared to hive the bees. I had watched tons of videos of package bees being hived but the boxes in the videos had all been wood and ours was plastic. Nothing looked the same. I fumbled with the tiny queen cage. Removing the cap seemed impossible. Bees were still clinging all over the outside of it like Velcro, attracted to the queen’s come-hither-and-make-me-a-sandwich pheromones. Dana finally was able to get the plastic cap off, leaving just the candy plug in place, which the bees would eventually chew through to free the queen and her little attendant bees.

Then we introduced the bees into the hive box and that part was exactly like the videos. Shake-shake-dump, shake-shake-dump and the bees poured out like Rice Krispies. But there was no time to celebrate because as soon as they realized which way was up, they began moving in that direction, rapidly! So once we had most of them in, we brushed them away from the sides and placed the bars, the propolis screen, the quilt box, and finally the roof. We set the mostly empty package nearby so that the stragglers could make their way in on their own time.

The next step was to insert the queen cage, which was supposed to fit into a spacer that had been included with the hive for that specific purpose. It didn’t quite fit, though, because this queen cage was a smaller plastic one. We pushed it in a bit too far, at which point it fell entirely into the hive box and we were in no mood to reopen the hive to get it out, so we replaced the wooden plug into the spacer and left it. Spoiler: this would turn out to be a mistake.

At the end of the day, we had a big, wooden box full of bees in our back yard and just one bee sting between us. Dana sustained a sting to the thigh–again, bee in the pants leg! Mental note: elasticized cuffs are our friend. The bees stayed, happily settling in and showing no signs of absconding. I had put a drop or two of lemongrass oil into the hive to make them feel at home and we placed a nice, full bag feeder of sugar water onto their bottom screen on the advice of the hive manufacturer. This, too, would turn out to be a mistake–not necessarily the bag feeder or its placement, but the filling of it. As it turns out, bag feeders should only be filled half-way to avoid leaking, which ours did. But I’ll go into our failures and successes in a later post. For now, the important thing is we have the bees and we no longer have a hive in our living room. Let summer begin!

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It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! No, It’s…

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So, as I’ve been thinking a lot about honey bees (and no, we don’t have them yet–not stalling, I swear! Ok, maybe I am a little), so have I been thinking a lot about superorganisms. In a nutshell, a superorganism is a social group made up of individuals who would not survive for long outside of the group, work together and divide labor to further the goals of that group, and collectively exhibit a higher level of ability and/or intelligence than each individual alone. Honey bee colonies, ant colonies, and…colonies of…naked mole rats (Science journal’s 2013 Vertebrate of the Year, by the way), seem to be the go-to examples of superorganisms.

But here is what I think is weird: the human body and human society, evidently, are controversial examples. They definitely come up in the discussion, but I get the feeling that it’s the kind of thing scientists and sociologists have intellectual slap-fights over. So right away, I’m wondering what is so controversial. Why are these examples less accepted as meeting superorganism criteria than the others? (I mean why, other than the always impressive human ego, of course.)

One argument against including human societies is that humans can live in a large society or within smaller family units. But I have to take issue with that. Naked mole rat colonies (everyone’s favorite superorganism) can be made up of anywhere from 20 to hundreds. So different sized units are ok.

Let’s look at the main qualifications.

Show of hands– how many here would be able to survive completely isolated from all human society for more than a couple of years? How many would be able to do it without either some form of tool or supply made by humans other than yourself?

Pretty sure we have also figured out how to divide labor in order to assure the (biological, at least) success of the human species. I’m not saying it’s a fair division because it’s not, but hey, is it fair when all the drones get kicked out of the hive right before winter gets real? No, it most definitely sucks to be them. But the point is, everyone has some sort of role to play. And no, in case you’re wondering, I am not implying that poor people should be poor because it’s their station in life just like the drones or anything like that, so don’t even. As far as I know, there’s no requirement that the division of labor must be pre-destined. In fact, a female worker honey bee will have many different jobs in her lifetime including nursing young, cleaning, building, guarding the hive, and eventually she will graduate to scouting and foraging.

Then there’s that thing about the society, as a whole, being more capable and more intelligent than any individual. I know that this may not resonate with some people, having witnessed social calamities like the collapse of Wall Street, collective lapses in taste such as the pet rock fad, or the event that straddled the line between poor economic and poor cultural decision-making: the Great Beanie Baby Crash of ’99.

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But give credit where credit is due. Human society is pretty darn clever. Have you ever just sat and thought about how computers work? In fact, forget computers, have you ever sat and thought about how record players work? Have you?? Have you ever just looked at something and said to yourself, “who comes up with this stuff?” That’s because no one person could possibly have done it alone, no matter how smart.

Without the support and collective knowledge of human society, even Einstein would have been living in a cave without the faintest idea that it’s Earth’s gravity holding his feet on the ground, or that light has to travel through space to reach his eyes. Since he’s still Einstein, he might be able to figure out how to bang big rocks together to make smaller rocks, or how to string leaves together to make a nice loincloth. But there would be no theory of relativity. No, siree. A person doesn’t just come up with this stuff.

How about the human body? I totally think that would have to qualify as a superorganism, too. Sounds strange at first, but what are the qualifications again?

1) Made up of individuals that would not survive for long outside of the group. Well, aside from Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were so valuable to society precisely because they’re the exception to the rule, most of us are made up of cells that will die when removed from the body. And we’re not just made of our “own” cells, either! We are walking, talking, twerking, rioting, Harlem Shaking, Jersey Shore watching ecosystems for a whole array of bacteria and fungi, to the point that there are far more bacterial cells living on and in the human body than there are human cells! And we are only just beginning to realize the impact that these co-habitants have on our bodies.

2) Division of labor to further the goals of the organism. This begins in utero, as cells divide and become red or white blood cells, bone cells, nerve cells, etc. They all have jobs to do–remember watching videos in health class of the white blood cells surrounding and destroying foreign bodies? Patrolling through the blood stream like they had minds of their own?

3) Exhibit a higher level of ability and/or intelligence than each individual alone. Ever heard of “cellular memory”? It’s a hypothesis that, at least when applied to human cells, is considered pseudoscience, but I find it fascinating. The theory is that single-celled critters have some capacity to store memory, absent of brains. Look up the Japanese slime mold study on the Google sometime–you won’t be sorry. Anyway, I bring this up because you probably don’t think of your cells as “individuals” so first I just want to throw it out there that you can look at your cells as just the building blocks of you–or you could look at them as individuals who are simply minuscule parts of a superorganism. At least just humor me and think of them that way for a sec, thanks. So you have all these little mini-organisms all doing their thing, but they are contributing to the goals of a higher consciousness, i.e. you.

I think this is all super interesting, but of course I am not a scientist. Or a sociologist. I have some friends who are. And, if they are reading this, they would probably like to engage in an intellectual slap-fight right now. How about you, out there? Is our society a superorganism? How about our bodies? If you are so inclined, feel free to weigh in with a comment.

You and Me and All the Bees

It’s Easter Sunday and things are calming down here at the ranch. For one thing, it is actually sunny! With real sun! Mother Nature has finally taken a break from dumping snow all over us and is now free to focus on cultivating a bumper crop of mud for our dog to play in. The upstairs bathroom is complete now, too, and the swamp behind the passenger seat of my car has been drained and the leak (hopefully) fixed.

The next major item on our agenda is the acquisition of the honey bees, which, I have to admit, is intimidating to me. And I don’t just mean handling bees for the first time. I am not sure how much familiarity you may personally have with the approximately gazillion varieties, subsets, and hybrids of honey bees in existence, but I’m pretty well-read on the subject right about now. I have learned so much and stumbled onto such a trove of fascinating, and sometimes downright odd information (such as an archaic and cheerily oblivious comparison of variations between bee races to variations between human races) that if there is one thing I am confident in, it is that there are a gazillion kinds of honey bees.

After poring through so much material, I thought it might be helpful to myself and perhaps others to summarize what I have learned about several of the varieties of honey bee that are most prevalent here in the North of America. The traits I’m focusing on are the ones most critical for my family’s purposes. Before I start, I want to point out that there is that there is just SO much contradictory information out there! This is true of many things you could research on the interwebs, but on the bee topic, the “facts” appear to be especially subjective. In my summary, blatantly contradictory findings will be accompanied by a {mildly colorful expletive}. Also, beekeepers (or beeks as they often refer to themselves) have their favorites–this is true of both hive types and bee varieties–and, like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry fans, they will argue forever about which is best.

I’m not going to get too much into what type of bee is the most gentle. Let’s just say it’s a horse race. Aside from the German, Africanized, and possibly Buckfast, they all sound like pretty agreeable little critters.

Let’s start with the honorable mention, the Carniolan–or if you’re like me and have no idea which syllable gets the emphasis, you can just call them Carnies. These are almost the perfect bee for us. Almost. They are generally agreed to be extremely docile. They overwinter well and are thrifty with their honey, making them good for the mid-Atlantic climate, and their combs have pretty, white caps, which is nice if you like comb honey, and I most definitely do. Ever since I had a glistening chunk of comb honey as part of a transcendent charcuterie platter a couple of months ago I have been dreaming about it. Carnies are also either marvelous or dismal comb builders {cheese and sprinkles!}. But it doesn’t matter because there is one major problem: they swarm like a flash mob…multiple times a season and, according to one local beek I know, sometimes multiple times a WEEK. I can just see the zoning citation now……next!!

Buckfast, besides sounding like a kind of Hobbit, is either a race of bee or a hybrid, depending on who you ask {cor blimey!}. It is also either very gentle and great for beginners or moderately aggressive and not a beginner’s bee {what the actual @&#%?}. Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey traveled far and wide to find bees with desirable characteristics and shuffled them around for quite a while until he got these little guys. The best I can conclude is that they are lovely as long as you re-queen them every year. As this is not something I feel we can commit to, Buckfast is probably not going to work out for us.

Caucasian bees seem to have their charms. They are super docile, like tiny, winged golden retrievers. They have extra long tongues (also like golden retrievers) which gives them an edge, with all the nectar sucking. They make lots of propolis (bee glue). Some people don’t like this because it makes the hive harder to work, but the silver lining is that you can harvest propolis for various cool purposes. The deal breaker is that they are also rather disease prone, and some of these bee diseases give me the heebie jeebies. Ergo, I would like to try to avoid sick bees as much as possible.

Now we’re getting down to the true contenders…I decided to add illustrations for these two.

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Italian bees are currently the most popular honey bee in North America. They are the iconic honey bee, bright yellow with black stripes. These little golden cuties, true to the stereotype of the Italian mother, raise a large family and feed them well–too well sometimes, since they can eat themselves out of house and home over the winter. They are reasonably gentle. They are prone to robbing and drifting, sometimes wandering into the wrong hive, but swarming does not seem to be as much of an issue. Italians are good honey producers and make a nice comb, with white caps like those of the Carnies. The only question is, can they hack a Pennsylvania winter?

Which brings us to our final candidate, the Russian honeybee. Swarthier and more frugal than the Italian, these bees are supposedly well adapted to make it through a long winter, which, as I sat last weekend looking out the kitchen window at the driving, late March snow, seemed like a very desirable quality. They also have some resistance to mites, including the dreaded Varroa. They are somewhat lacking in soft skills, however. Michael Bush of Bush Farms observes on his website that Russians can be “defensive, but in odd ways.” Evidently they are prone to head-butting. Though he goes on to say that this does not necessarily mean that they sting any more than other bees. So maybe a colony that can make it through the winter is worth a little head-butting. These rugged, Putin-esque bees are definitely still in the running.

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Not to be anti-climactic now that we’ve been through all of this comparing and contrasting, but there is also still a big chance that we’ll just try to catch a swarm of the local bee du jour. It’s a lot cheaper, and besides, we are past prime bee-ordering season and many bee suppliers are sold out of the more popular varieties. So for the upcoming week, I am going to make it my goal to assemble a swarm kit. This way, if the golden opportunity arises for Dana and I to voluntarily retrieve a writhing, buzzing mass of bees dangling from a tree branch in God-knows-where, PA…we will be(e) prepared.

What’s it all about?

Amid the craziness of my family’s everyday life–a bathroom remodel that has rendered us showerless, an ambitious social calendar, and a flooded car–two large boxes arrived at our house. At first, the boxes went largely unnoticed (by me, at least).  I just assumed they were the hardware I’d ordered for the bathroom a few days earlier.  They had been carried inside the door by the contractors and nudged to the side, out of the way of the traffic into and out of the house.

They had been sitting there unopened for two days when my husband, Dana, started bringing up bees.

“We’ve gotta order our bees soon,” he said.

“Let’s just see how much the car costs first,” I replied, cringing slightly.  In the year we have had this car, we’ve never made it out of the shop for less than a grand.

“I really want to get them this year,” he insisted.

I wondered vaguely why the subject had come up all of the sudden.  We had ordered our hive, a gorgeous modified Warré, several weeks earlier, just before the maker had stopped taking orders for the season.  I had stumbled onto their site, fallen in love, and decided that this was the only hive for our future honeybees. Then I saw their most recent Facebook post, announcing that they were backed up to March and wouldn’t be taking any more orders for complete hives.  The post was only a day or two old, so in desperation I began the motions of placing an order, sure that at any moment I would be stopped:  “Error: What’s the matter, stoopid, didn’t you see the post? NO MORE ORDERS!”

But miraculously, they had not yet disabled the site’s online ordering capability and it seemed to go through.  For days after, I nervously checked my inbox, expecting to receive an apology and refund at any moment. Finally, an e-mail arrived confirming that our hive was in production, and then, shortly after, a shipping confirmation.

We hadn’t talked much more about it since then.  “We don’t even have a place to put bees yet,” I pointed out. “…I wonder when our hive will get here.”

Dana looked at me as if I had my pants on backwards and said, “What do you think those big boxes in the living room are?”

We paused then to celebrate the arrival of the hive with happy dances and high fives…but the hive remained in the boxes.

It was only this morning, a chilly, snow-covered first Saturday of spring, that the world stopped spinning for a few minutes as I peeled off the tape and opened the first box.  The glorious scent of cedar and honey wafted out into the room as I unpacked each thoughtfully crafted piece.

Each of the three hive boxes contains eight bars, coated with beeswax, and perfectly spaced to conform to "bee space".
Each of the three hive boxes contains eight bars, coated with beeswax, and perfectly spaced to conform to “bee space”.

The estimate for the car was only $700…that is until they found one more bad wheel bearing.  Now it is back to a thousand, just as I knew it would be.  But our will to have our bees this year is renewed.  After all, there are ways to get free bees–we’re a little late to get cheap nucs from the local bee association, and transferring bees from Langstroth nucs to a Warré hive is no picnic, I hear, but there’s always the possibility of luring or capturing a swarm. (I say that as if I have any experience whatsoever doing such a thing.)

I’ve been wanting to do a blog for a long time.  This one will not be solely about bees, since we’re into a little bit of everything.  I want to blog about crafting, photography, gardening, writing, cookingparentingLIFE!!

…But I tend to be a procrastinator.  And I am hoping that the routine, structure, and novelty of beekeeping will inspire posts not just about all things bee, but about all things that BE.

The completed modified Warré hive, from Sweet Valley Hives
The completed modified Warré hive, from Sweet Valley Hives