8.20.2011

Bee Links

Chicago's O'Hare Airport had some unused land and since airports are all about flying, made this a new home for one and a half million bees. Sweet Beginnings, the organization that trains felons in the art of beekeeping and bee products, is managing the project through a local economic development agency. The airport beekeeping movement began in Germany, in 1999, when scientists used bees to monitor air quality. O'Hare, however, is the first American airport apiary. Cocktail party fact: O'Hare was once an apple orchard, which lives on in its three-letter airport code, "ORD."

Click here for the story.

Four Not-To-Be-Missed Marvelous Bee Movies (and one Bee Viddy):

1. Queen of the Sun: What are the Bees Telling Us?

This is the most recent effort from Taggart Siegel, the filmmaker who gave us the wonderful and one-of-a-kind, The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Full of gorgeous photography, eccentric beekeepers, and rational scientists, this film is mostly about Colony Collapse Disorder. Regarding CCD, most people are unaware that:
  • Artificially bred bees are malnourished on a diet of high-fructose corn-syrup.
  • Many are confined in plastic hives and transported thousands of miles (as they are bombarded by exhaust fumes) only to be forced to work in crops soaked in pesticides.
  • Because of these conditions, exhausted and weakened pollinators become easy prey for mites, climate change, environmental radiation, viruses, air and water pollution, and the challenging effects of genetically modified crops.
  • In order for urban beekeepers to thrive, certain antiquated laws need to be changed.
Don't get the idea this is a downer, boo-hoo, what can we do? kind of a movie. It's not. Even the movie website is fascinating and educational without being boring. Click on the title above, go to the movie website link, and scroll down to read their Ten Amazing Bee Facts. If that doesn't give you scintillating cocktail party conversation, you need to stay home (and watch a good bee movie).

2. Vanishing of the Bees

This documentary really gets into the issue of Colony Collapse Disorder, explaining what caused colony collapse disorder, how the cause was identified, and what people can do to prevent its spread. The approach is quite scientific and includes an interview with Michael Pollan, among others.

In France, you learn that the government uses the "precautionary principle" regarding the use of pesticides: a pesticide must be proven not to have harmful side effects. In the United States, most of the studies are conducted by the manufacturers of the very same pesticides that are causing the problems.

Even so, the filmmakers are conservative when it comes to drawing firm scientific conclusions and placing blame even though neonicotinoids, pesticides made by Bayer, obviously negatively affect bees. All you have to do is watch a bee on a pesticide-treated sunflower: she loses her orientation, can't work, and falls to the ground. That alone is worth the extra effort to go find this movie.

3. Colony: No Bees. No Honey. No Work. No Money.

This might just be my favorite bee movie, ever, thanks to the Seppi brothers. These are the boys who decide to start up a bee pollinating business at the exact wrong time - at the beginning of Colony Collapse Disorder - and are the thread running through this movie that holds it together. They live in a deeply religious family with a mother who understands nothing about agricultural economics or even basics about farming business. With these two strikes against them, you can't help but get attached and watch with the hope they can persevere.

As with the first two documentaries, you get a healthy dose of David Hackenberg and David Mendes, two professional pollinators who pack thousands of their hives onto trailers and travel across the country, renting out their bees to farmers for weeks at a time. They're both quirky, honest, fascinating, and seemingly just trying to make a living at something incredibly difficult. Mr. Hackenberg is known for first identifying Colony Collapse Disorder when he mysteriously lost 80 million bees from his Florida hives. Mr. Mendes is shown selflessly trying to save his, as well as the rest of the world's, collapsing hives. They are a couple of interesting characters in a movie full of interesting characters, but the characters who stick with you for days later while you wonder and worry are the Seppi brothers, Lance and Victor. I still worry and hope the best for them, even now.

4. Nova: Bees: Tales From The Hive

This is an older documentary and, as you'll find if you click on the title, available through Amazon (and Netflix), rather than on TV or at a screen somewhere, so Colony Collapse Disorder isn't discussed. Instead you'll find the most unbelievable close-up footage of bees in flight, foraging, fighting, mating, and dancing.

If you ever wanted to be a bee, this is your movie. It's the closest you'll ever get to carrying pollen on your legs.

5. TED Talks: Dennis vanEngelsdorp: a plea for bees

One more little video, back to the subject of Colony Collapse Disorder. This is a TED talk from 2008 given by the Acting State Apiarist for Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture. Mr. VanEngelsdorp describes the role that bees (and beekeepers) play in our lives, their importance, and their future given this massive and frightening bee colony death called Colony Collapse Disorder. It's less than twenty minutes long and, like all TED talks, worth every second of your time. Every third bite you take is thanks to a bee, and if there's a better cocktail party conversation starter than that, you're going to better parties than me.

8.19.2011

Bee Ambassadors

When you're as excited about bees as my mom and Yo, you invite your friends over to look at your new pets. Whenever we schedule a time to come down to do hive inspections, my mom asks her friends if they want to come over and watch. We get a good lunch and they get the potential to get stung.

Last week, not only did her friends stop by for a visit, but they brought along visitors who happened to be visiting them, too. My mom's friends wanted to show their guests something different and exciting. We got the idea of what it's like to be one of the stops on a wine-tasting tour. Except there's no wine - there's not even honey yet - and you have to wear a veil.

Yo gave them an overview while we finished our lunch. After that, we got them ready to stand in the hot sun in front of a million bees. We made them wear lighter clothing, which meant putting on sweaters during a 90 degree day, since bees think you're a bear if you're wearing dark colors. At least that's what we've been told. We made them wear veils, too, since a sting in the eye means you're now blind and that would ruin anyone's vacation.

Charlie opened up a hive and showed them a frame of bees. They took photos and asked lots of questions. One woman said, "Oh my gosh, look at all those bees!"  She said it many times, just as if we really were a stop on someone's fun vacation tour.

Not only did we get to also talk about bees, but they left us with a video of their trip to the Kalahari desert. Maybe next time we can trade vacation tours.

Hit The Road, Drone

Pushed out drone
Male bees - drones - are so lazy they don't even feed themselves. They don't clean themselves and they don't do any work, ever. All they're good for is just the one thing.

Otherwise, the girls have to take care of them like big babies.

When the bees begin to get ready for winter, they're making as much honey as they can to build up stores. The slacker drones start to become as annoying as lazy teenagers so the girls escort them out the front door and won't let them back into the hive.

Watching the hive entrance around this time of the year, you'll see huge, wandering, teenage-boy-looking bees. You can pick them out right away because all the other bees are scurrying around looking busy. These big guys walk from one bee to another, as if they're asking for a handout. They never get one. Often they get pushed off the porch and fall onto the ground, and that's where their story ends.

One of our hives on the roof has a virgin queen. Or she was. Charlie found a drone recently kicked out, on the ground in front of this particular hive. You'll notice this guy has a different look. He looks like he died with a smile on his face.

The virgin queen is no longer virgin.


Pocketful of Bees

What is good for bees is good for everything else. Once we put the bees out in my mom's back yard, it seemed as if everything that could hop, crawl or fly over, did exactly that and moved in.

Along the ground, armies of yellow jackets hover even though there are thirteen traps hung along the nearby trees, and those are filled within days. Sometimes they're filled within hours if the traps happen to be particularly situated or if they smell like really good, dead things.

But the worst problem are the ants. We've had some success with painting Tanglefoot around the legs of the hive stand. Ants are smart, though. They'll stack up leaves and debris over the sticky Tanglefoot to crawl over it. They'll even crawl up over their stuck, dead relatives to get to the honey.

And they do. Get to the honey, that is. Beekeepers say, "You'll only have ant problems with a weak hive." They haven't been to my mom's. It's like the Amazon: there's so much life that it's impossible to clear out an ant-free zone. They could take down coyotes.

Charlie bought another bottle of Tanglefoot and reapplied our sticky defense. We knew that wasn't the end of the story.

He needed to move the lower hives. He made a new hive stand, a taller one this time, and placed it back further into the hill. This way the yellow jackets would have to fly out of their comfort zone and, more importantly, the ants would have to traverse over a retaining wall and up the legs of a taller stand. There'd have to be a lot more dead bodies to climb over if they were going to get into these hives.

Once he built the stand, he moved the hives. This created a problem for the bees. They'd been out foraging and when they came home, home was not there anymore.

Instead, they found Charlie's hive toolbelt. In the pocket was his hive tool, which he'd just used to open their hives for the move. Smelling the smells of home, that was good enough for these tired bees. The rest of their sisters flew around in the general area, as if they were circling the block, thinking, "This has to be the right place."

After emptying his belt pocket a few times, the bees got the idea and fanned their wings to let their sisters know where to go. If all goes well, the ants won't catch on.

8.08.2011

George's Swarm #2

"It happened again," George said. He called Charlie about a week ago when a huge swarm landed on his cherry tree. Now he's calling again. "They're on a lower branch this time. Come on over."

It was cold and almost dark. The bees would want to stick close together for the night to keep warm, so Charlie wouldn't have to wait a long time for the bees to march in, once he got the queen. Rescuing them would be a snap.

Don't tell me bees aren't smart. George's garden is stunning, lush, and probably the most beautiful piece of greenery within a mile. They picked the best place they could find to swarm.

If you want to attract bees (maybe not this many) plant a beautiful garden.

Crutches, Compost and Yellow Jackets


Ants on a yellow jacket trap
“I’m on crutches,” Philip said. “While removing a colony from a roof in Petaluma, I took a fall. Would you mind helping me inspect my hives?”

Who wouldn't want to see what a real beekeeper’s hives look like? “Sure,” Charlie said.

Arriving at his house, the first thing he said was, “I have something to show you. I did a couple of yellow jacket rescues. They’re out on the compost pile.”

“You rescued yellow jackets? I would have sprayed them with Raid.”

“I don’t like releasing that kind of poison in the environment. I do it a little differently.”

“Why are you rescuing yellow jackets?”

“I get bee calls. I arrive and the bees turn out to be yellow jackets. I don’t want to say, ‘they’re yellow jackets, sorry,’ and walk away. Yellow jackets are dangerous.”

“How do you capture yellow jackets?”

“I spray them with this powder that stops them from flying. Next, I cover them with a cloth laundry-type bag, pull the drawstring and take them home, out to the compost pile. Grab the butane torch on the table and I’ll show you.”

“This ought to be good.”

On top of the compost heap is a paper nest the size of a watermelon.

“What I like to do is torch ‘em. You want to do it?”

“Of course.” Charlie, the undercover pyro, lit the torch.

“Start with the wasp nest. You’ll see the layers burn away. After that, you’ll see the comb.”

The yellow jacket nest walls are extremely thick. Even with a butane torch, it took a while to burn through. As it did, the layers of comb began to appear, like a cut-away view of a house. Everything in the yellow jacket nest is made out of paper, but a paper that’s impervious to weather. It looks like a rolled asphalt roof with one layer overlapping the next, using gravity to shed water.

The yellow jackets, of course, came flying out when their house began to burn. Charlie made sure to torch each one as they escaped, so they wouldn't survive to sting him.

Inside the comb were larvae and - thinking of how much yellow jackets were making his bees' life hard - Charlie became even more enthusiastic in the process of killing them.

Once the nest was toast, Charlie concentrated on the dirt nest also stored in the compost pile. He used the same vigor and excitement to spray each and every single one of those flying evil bee killers. They sting multiple times while bees only get one chance. It's not fair.

Soon the compost pile was scorched earth, but that didn't slow him down. Knowing yellow jackets, there could be more hiding somewhere. Charlie sprayed as if his life depended on it.

Philip, not as interested in the yellow jackets as Charlie, said,  "That's probably enough."

Worth A Fly?

Healthy Saratoga bees
At the Santa Clara Beekeepers Guild, Serge Labesque got us enthusiastic about getting our hives ready for winter. That's not easy. Getting beekeepers excited is easy - just ask us about our girls - but winter? Some of us get the shakes just anticipating all that down time we'll have while our bees stay inside their hive, snuggling up in a tight ball to keep warm, eating honey and relaxing.
    
Serge showed slides of top boards to create proper wintering ventilation flow, racks to make to keep frames dry and moth-free, and explained how to stack two hives on top of each other with a queen excluder between. This way, he said, the worker bees can move freely between the hives without the queens killing each other.   

Often weak hives starve over the winter as they can't eat cold honey even if it's nearby, and they can't get to honey if it isn't nearby. With a two hive colony, the starving bees send out distress signals and the warm, healthy bees fly up and feed them. You use nature to keep them alive.  

   
However, when Charlie asked a question about swarms, Serge answered with, "Swarms? I don't waste my time with swarms. They're not going to make it anyway."   
Notice swarm hanging from top

The first thing a beekeeper learns is that 75% of swarms don't survive winter. In fact, there's a saying, "A swarm in May is worth a bale of hay, a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon but a swarm in July isn't worth a fly."   

It's August. There's not enough time to build up comb and store enough honey for winter, all while making enough babies to keep the hive alive.     

Stopping by my mom's before the meeting, Charlie got around to doing some cleanup. When you have a lot of pretty property to leave extra hive traps lying around, you do.  There's no use bringing them home.  Who needs another tiny, frail swarm caught from Golden Gate park? We had to merge the two swarms we caught on the roof together, being so small.   

They weren't thriving - even then - so we brought them to the Saratoga bee hospital at my mom's, to recover.  Better but still sickly, we merged them with the Alameda girls - a third, healthy swarm. After all that, they're going strong. No wonder Serge doesn't have time for swarms.     

When Charlie lifted the hive trap, it was heavy. You know what that means: another swarm had moved in. This is the fourth Saratoga swarm we've caught since Father's Day. Where were all these bees before?   
 
Inside the Little Giants hive
During his last inspection, Charlie noticed the Little Giants - the bees from our Giants hive with the too-fat-to-fly queen that swarmed ten feet from their hive onto our squash plants - didn't have any eggs. Maybe that fat queen couldn't make the trip down to Saratoga, or she didn't like the warm weather, or the virgin queen injured her during their battle for the top job. Either way, they needed a new queen. 
 
Charlie added a frame of babies stolen from another healthy hive so they could make a new queen, but that would take a while. If they were going to survive winter, they needed a push. 
 
They got it. Charlie didn't have time, being late for the bee meeting already, to do anything but dump the new swarm into the Little Giants's hive, queen and all. Usually you put a sheet of newspaper between the two colonies. That way, during the time it takes for them to chew through, they get used to each other. We'd rather talk about bees than deal with these here. 
 
Cleaning each other
The Little Giants, at first, chased the new Saratoga girls away. That didn't last long. 
 
Bees on top of the frames began to clean each other, as if to say, "Come in, we have plenty of room. And let's clean you up a little before you meet the rest of the girls." 
 
We put the top back on, hoping this new queen stays and lays, being August and all. If not, a guy at the bee meeting introduced himself to us by saying, "If you need good queens, I'll have a few for sale soon." We got his number.

8.04.2011

We're In Business


Cat, our new best bee friend, called to say, “Would you mind responding to a swarm call? It’s in San Francisco and I’m too busy to drive all the way up there.”

A real swarm capture? Not just reclaiming our own bees? 

“Sure,” Charlie said and put down his mouse for the first time all morning. He now had an excuse to quit hanging out on the bee chat groups, writing passionate comments while drinking strong coffee: his morning routine until, well, lunch.

When he arrived, George the homeowner told him, “I was out in my garden yesterday. I heard this thunder-like sound. I looked up and there was a cloud of bees landing on my cherry tree. It was so exciting to watch but now I feel sorry for them. They’re not moving.”

“This is perfect,” Charlie said. “I've got a queenless hive.” 

The first swarm Charlie ever caught, our Slacker swarm that escaped across the street, don’t have a queen. After capturing them we gave them a new box on the other end of the stand and named them Slacktivists. They never got around to making babies so we wonder if that queen, the one who swarmed, gave up her wild ways and went back home to her old, familiar hive. 

The rest of the swarm stayed in their new box and started building up honey, hoping she’d come back. She never did. She most likely killed the Slackers' new queen and went back to work laying eggs. Somebody’s laying a lot of eggs in that hive and from the looks of it, it’s someone who knows what she’s doing. There are frames full of babies.

Back at the swarm, George took Charlie back to his garden, a beautiful sunny oasis with huge pots of flowers, planter boxes lush with trees and green growing vegetation everywhere, like only a garden with lots of sun can be. No wonder the swarm stopped here.

The bees made their temporary home up thirty feet high, even though Cat was told it was fifteen feet max. Bees balled up about the size of a volleyball.

“I have a big extension ladder you can use,” George said.

Charlie propped it up against the neighbor’s fence and brought out his nuc box. A nuc box is a cardboard box in which frames can be put in, used only to capture swarms or starting a nucleus colony. He’d only used it once before to capture the escaping Giants girls who swarmed ten feet from their hive onto our squash plant. The box was barely big enough to hold all those girls, so it probably smelled a lot like sweaty bees, like an apiary gym locker.

Charlie held the box under the swarm and lifted it up until the whole swarm was inside the box to minimize the drop distance and the potential bee trauma.

Thwap! Charlie hit the branch and they all fell in.

He put the lid on and held it in place. A couple of tiny clusters congregated by the entrance, proving there was a queen and she was inside the box.

He couldn’t stand there for the several hours it would take to make sure the stragglers got in. Instead, Charlie left it tied onto the highest part of the tree that would support the box, about five feet off the ground. It’s better to do that than have them fall. That happened already with the first swarm Charlie caught: the Slacker swarm. A gusty wind came up and knocked the whole nuc to the ground. Perhaps that had something to do with the reason the Slacker queen went back into her old hive?

“I’ll come back tonight about 7:30 to collect the box," Charlie told George. "It’ll take that long to make sure they’re all inside.”

“Do you get paid for this?" George asked. "How are you spending all this time without earning any money?”

“As long as people call me instead of an exterminator, I’m happy to do it for nothing.”

“Well," George said, holding up a hundred dollar bill. "I thank you and Ben thanks you. I can’t wait to tell all my gardening friends about this.”

Whacha Gonna Do With All Those (Chilly) Bees?


We have an obstacle and it’s called fog. We have another called cold, as in summers never getting above 60 except for the rare days when it hits 62 and we all rush outside, get sunburned and, for a day, look like we live in California. 

Otherwise, we and our bees practically hibernate. We can travel to get our Vitamin D but the bees aren't joining us in the car. On their own, they can go about three miles. Three miles east doesn't get them to the sunny side of San Francisco, and twenty blocks west is the Pacific Ocean. We feel like bee scientists, pushing the limits of bee toleration when it comes to living in adverse pollen-gathering weather conditions.

To survive winter, bees need a summer. Our girls need a better spot.

They have the best spot possible at my mom’s, but she agreed to a few hives. A few is two, and she's hosting that many hive stands, both full. She's not complaining, yet. In fact, the first thing she does every morning is to hike up her hill and say hello to the girls.

Less than six months ago a car rolled down from the house above and landed in her pool. The area all nicely cleared off, all ready for bees? A car ran through it. Sure it's only happened once in 39 years, but doesn't lightning strike twice in the same place?

We asked our CSA if they wanted bees and they said, “There’s a hive here already but if you think we should have more, go ahead.”

Charlie was ready to load up a hive and go, but I thought it'd be best to visit first being that their location was warmer, but just as foggy. While touring all their acres of broccoli and cabbage and so many different vegetables that I couldn't recognize, the hive's owner came by. We knew she was the hive's owner because who else would get out of a car wearing a full bee suit, including veil?

Cat said she's on a mission: to catch swarms and install them on organic farms up and down the coast. She wasn’t doing it for the money – is there money? – but to help establish bees on the coast, and to support organic farmers.

Later on we learned we weren't able to put one of our hives on the CSA property. The CSA only leases, so they didn't have the final say. Cat found out and told us, “There are a lot of other farms needing hives. Let’s keep in touch. We'll work it out.”

She mentioned she sold her honey at the Pacifica Farmer’s Market. “You ought to stop by,” she said. “Farmer John will be there. He’s a good guy. Maybe he'd want one of your hives.”

Farmer's Markets are the best excuse to buy cookies, so we stopped by. With a mouthful of cashew creams and whoopie pies, we were introduced to Farmer John. 

“Cat’s crazy," he said. "You can do whatever you like, just go through her. You beekeepers are crazy.”

We were too stuffed with sugar to argue.